Israel returned to politics while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was improving but still comatose in a hospital a week after a massive stroke, with his allies jockeying for position and his main rival ordering his party's ministers to quit the Cabinet.
Likud members were to vote yesterday in primary elections to choose a list of candidates for the March 28 elections, with polls showing them losing more than half their strength from last time -- when Sharon was their leader. The same polls show Sharon's new party, Kadima, maintaining a huge lead despite, or perhaps because of, his illness.
Sharon's successor as Likud leader, ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, ordered his party's Cabinet ministers to quit yesterday. But Israeli media reported that the four ministers would ignore the order, plunging the hardline movement, already reeling from Sharon's defection, into further disarray.
Uncertainty over Sharon's condition clouded Kadima campaign plans. Doctors said it would be days, perhaps weeks, before a full picture of the damage from Sharon's stroke would be clear. He showed slight progress on Wednesday, but his doctors warned that neurological cases are slow to develop, measuring progress in weeks and months.
Sharon's closest ally, Ehud Olmert, has taken over as acting prime minister, but if Sharon is ruled permanently incapacitated, the Cabinet would have to pick a replacement until the election -- probably Olmert.
Since Sharon's stroke, Olmert has worked to project an air of stability, holding Cabinet meetings and assuring the country that the government was continuing to function. He spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday and gave him an update on Sharon's condition.
Olmert had previously been seen as an unlikely candidate for prime minister, but his calm stewardship of the crisis has turned him into the clear frontrunner in the election.
A poll for Channel 10 TV and the Haaretz daily projected that an Olmert-headed Kadima would win 44 of 120 seats, virtually assuring it would lead the next government. Likud and the dovish Labor trailed with about 15 seats each. Pollsters questioned 640 voters but did not give a margin of error.
Kadima politicians cautioned against reading too much into the poll.
"We know about the limitations of these polls," Kadima lawmaker Haim Ramon told Israel TV. "This just says that it depends on what we do. This week we acted well."
Experts said the results might reflect sympathy for Sharon's plight and might not hold.
Sharon formed the party late last year, bolting Likud after many of its lawmakers tried to torpedo his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Though many experienced politicians joined the centrist Kadima, it was largely seen as a one-man show.
Sharon had not yet drawn up the party's election list -- a difficult and often divisive process -- when he suffered his stroke.
On Wednesday, some Kadima officials discussed running Sharon symbolically in the top position on the list, but making Olmert their candidate for prime minister.
"Let's say that [Sharon] has serious physical limitations, but in all other capacities he functions. There is no one better than him for the first place," Ramon said.