Huge shadow cast over Israel

Just a few weeks ago there was a feeling that Ariel Sharon, the master tactician, had finally broken the mould of Israeli politics. With his plans held hostage by the right wing of the Likud party, he decided to call their bluff by breaking away and forming his own group. It was a huge gamble, but it seemed to be working.
Other Likud members joined his new party, as well as the former Labour leader, Shimon Peres. For a time it looked as though Sharon, the old warhorse who had been nicknamed “the bulldozer”, would become the man who gave birth to a party of the political centre.

Wednesday night’s events called all that into question. A doctor said he had suffered a “significant stroke”, which, even if he survives, means that his capacity to fight the forthcoming general election against a Likud led by Binyamin Netanyahu must be seriously in doubt.

Constitutionally, the position is that if the prime minister becomes incapacitated the deputy premier will assume the post for 100 days. After that, Israel’s ceremonial president will meet political leaders and choose someone to form a coalition government. But Sharon’s newly formed Kadima party — which is still in the process of establishing its organisation and raising campaign funds — now finds itself without an effective leader.

The group includes a mix of politicians who have left the hardline Likud and dovish Labour Party. If Sharon cannot run, potential replacements include Peres, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert. Since Kadima grew out of Likud, it is unlikely that it would choose Peres because of his Labour background.

Olmert (60) joined the national government in 2003 after a decade as mayor of Jerusalem and became Sharon’s closest and most outspoken ally in Likud, as he manoeuvred to overcome internal mutiny over the Gaza pullout plan. Olmert has gained a reputation for floating vaguely dovish ideas on defusing conflict with the Palestinians, such as a more significant pullout in the West Bank.

Livni (47), the most senior woman in Sharon’s inner circle, hails from a well-known, ultranationalist family,- but has endorsed ceding some occupied land to the Palestinians as a pragmatic way to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority — if not to achieve a peace agreement.

Another possible successor is Shaul Mofaz. Born in 1948, Mofaz became Defence Minister in 2003 after five years as army chief, which capped a 35-year military career including stints in special forces and a role in a 1976 commando rescue of Israelis held at Entebbe airport after a hijack.

A security hawk, Mofaz adopted harsh tactics towards the Palestinians, such as air strikes and house demolitions, but he staunchly backed Sharon’s plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip, and approves of future talks on a Palestinian state, provided they first disarm militants and carry out security reforms.

In theory, this is a disastrous position for Kadima to be in, just three months away from a crucial election. It is also possible to envisage a scenario where, if Sharon dies or is incapacitated for a long time, Kadima might be swept to electoral success on a wave of sympathy by voters eager to see the party carry on where he left off. How it will actually turn out is, at this stage, anyone’s guess and — again, in theory — the uncertainty could benefit both the rump of Likud and the Labour Party when it comes to the election.

Sharon’s illness also poses questions for Washington. Despite his age — he will be 78 next month — the Bush administration has tended to view him as a permanent fixture on the Israeli political scene and has shaped its policies accordingly.

Despite his record over the decades, Sharon has recently tried to position himself as a peacemaker. The question that still cannot be definitively answered, though, is whether his withdrawal from Gaza was intended to be the start of a process that would lead to a Palestinian state or merely a device for avoiding it.

Now, perhaps, we shall never know. Ultimately, it may turn out that there is no middle way as proposed by Kadima and that, in the end, Israeli voters will have to decide whether they want the continuing intransigence of Likud under Netanyahu or a peace process as favoured by the Labour Party under Amir Peretz. — Â

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