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by Fawzia Sheikh

Sharon's Stroke Paralyzes Israel Politics

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke Jan. 4, and the likely brain damage that medical experts describe as effectively writing him out of the political landscape, has ushered in an unknown era for his political party, and in relations with the Palestinians and the greater Middle East.

Ahead of the country's general elections due Mar. 28, former deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert has been crowned interim leader of Kadima, the center-right party Sharon founded only last November when he quit the increasingly ultra-right Likud. But is he up for the task?

"He's got a lot of experience, and he's a very shrewd politician," Ira Sharkansky, professor of political science and public administration at Jerusalem's Hebrew University told IPS. "He's a good person to be at the helm."

A part of the political appeal of Olmert, former mayor of Jerusalem, is that he has never been charged despite being accused of wrongdoing. "There's nothing firm to beat him up on," said Sharkansky. "That's part of the honeymoon that people talk about."

Sreemati Mitter, director of the media and information program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in Jerusalem, says her impression is that Olmert is not well-liked. "Sharon...was an earthy guy. Olmert is a very different man."

Polls pegged Kadima as the electoral frontrunner even before Sharon fell ill. One pollster this month predicted Kadima will win more than 40 seats in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, while Labor will walk away with 19 and, Likud, with 17.

Kadima enjoys continued success despite being afflicted with what many would describe as a crisis.

Because of his illness, Sharon, who has a long history of controversy, is being sanctified in images as a kind grandfather, a personable human being and a visionary for leaving the Gaza Strip, said Sharkansky.

"This aura of Sharon is radiating onto Kadima. The other parties had some ammunition, which now they can't use," Sharkansky said. This includes charges of corruption against Sharon for allegedly infringing election-financing laws in the past.

He said the opposition Labor and Likud parties, having realized Kadima's seeming invulnerability, merely want a share of the power Kadima is pegged to win, but are not engaged in a true political fight for control of the Knesset.

Mitter doubts Sharon's illness will have much effect on Kadima's status "unless something drastic happens between now and March" like a major suicide bombing. One occurred a few days ago in a Tel Aviv pedestrian mall, but there were only minor injuries except for the death of the bomber himself.

It is in fact the settler groups, not the opposition, that have taken advantage of the uncertainty in Israeli politics, she said. Protesters have ventured to the city of Hebron in solidarity with a handful of settlers who refuse to vacate a former Palestinian marketplace.

But while Olmert seems certain to secure the prime minister's office, it is less clear how the peace process will fare under his supervision, the most crucial issue in Israeli politics.

"Probably they will dismantle some settlements in the West Bank -- not all -- certainly not the big ones," explained Mitter. "They'll keep building this wall. They'll keep moving unilaterally. They'll keep stalling for time. We hope that whoever is the new player will start talking to the Palestinians."

Part of the issue, said Sharkansky, is no one knows Sharon's plans for disengaging from the West Bank. Although the comatose leader had in the past said he had finished the unilateral pull-out of Israeli settlers from the occupied territories, "the expectation is if he had won, he would have used his political clout to pull out some more."

Although Olmert offered to begin negotiations on the status of the final Israeli settlements if Hamas disarms, Sharkansky doubts the battle-shy Olmert will soon deal with the issue.

Most Israelis, in the meantime, have abandoned faith in grand peace schemes including the latest "roadmap" incarnation, said Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg who heads the conflict management and negotiation program at Bar Ilan University in Ranat-Gan in Israel. He added that public opinion polls indicate the majority of Israelis favor separation as the "least bad option."

Yet, without Sharon to lead the charge, Steinberg fears the whole process may move more slowly and with hesitation. Olmert will need to demonstrate he can maintain public support.

Sharon's setback may also have an impact on Israel's relationship with the Middle East. One particular situation stands out. News reports reveal Iran is building nuclear weapons, and its leader openly advocates Israel's destruction -- a call that has intensified fears among Israelis and led some political observers here to say that an attack against Iran is not out of the question.

As for the broader Arab world, "they've all called and expressed their best wishes for Sharon's recovery," Sharkansky noted. "A number of them will come to the funeral, if there is a funeral."

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Albion Monitor   January 23, 2006   (

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