Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disabling stroke has thrown Israeli politics into turmoil yet again. Or so it seems. Sharon was considered a certain victor in the planned March elections, for which he had organized his own Kadima (Forward) party, attracting leading figures from the Labor party on the left and the Likud party on the right. But will his departure from public life really be as destabilizing as many observers suggest?
To be sure, it was Sharon's personal appeal that made Kadima so popular. His conservative and nationalist credentials sustained his popularity on the right, while his new security strategy -- including full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip -- attracted supporters from the left. In short, Sharon was the ideal center candidate: a leader who reconciled a dovish approach with a hawkish outlook.
Yet Sharon's untimely departure has by no means reversed the fundamental political and strategic shifts that he initiated. In the short term, while Kadima will get fewer votes without Sharon at the helm, some voters will be swayed by sympathy for the stricken leader. Indeed, polls show that the party could still finish first.
Moreover, Kadima still has an impressive triumvirate at the top of its list. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a veteran political maverick and former mayor of Jerusalem, inspired several of Sharon's initiatives. Shimon Peres, a former prime minister and Labor party leader, appeals to many voters from the left. Former chief of staff and defense minister Shaul Mufaz provides the security expertise. Their differences will be harder to patch up without Sharon, but they have closed ranks and could well lead Kadima to victory.
At the same time, the main alternative candidates on the left and right have positioned themselves too far toward the extremes to recapture the center easily. On the left is Amir Peretz of the Labor party, a populist and trade-union federation leader with little national leadership experience and even less familiarity with security matters. Many Israelis distrust his ability to lead the country.
It had generally been expected that Labor would come in second in the election and form a coalition government with Kadima. Without Sharon, Peretz might have more leverage in the partnership, particularly since Olmert has been more willing than Sharon to embrace policy changes perceived as dovish. A Kadima-Labor coalition would have its problems, but it would still form the basis of a solid government.
On the right is Bibi Netanyahu, a former prime minister and leader of Sharon's old Likud party. A year ago, Netanyahu seemed certain to succeed Sharon. But his opposition to the Gaza Strip withdrawal, coupled with his strong criticism of Sharon, cost him his position as heir apparent.
`Out in the cold'
To gain control of the rump Likud, Netanyahu had to move sharply to the right. In the longer term, Netanyahu may again rise to the top in a post-Sharon era, if he is able to regain the center. But in the upcoming elections, he is likely to be left out in the cold.
More importantly, continuity on the political front is likely to extend to strategy and policy. Sharon embodied a new national consensus, accepted by at least two-thirds of the population, that reflects deep-seated changes in the country and its situation. From the left comes the idea that, in return for full peace, Israel is ready to withdraw from most of the territory captured in 1967 and accept a Palestinian state. From the right, the consensus acknowledges that currently there is no Palestinian partner for real peace.