Sharon’s Triumph

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.