Israel Must Learn to Live without Ariel Sharon – at Least for a While

It soon became evident Wednesday night, Jan. 4, that prime minister Ariel Sharon was very ill indeed. After he went into emergency surgery at Hadassah Ain Karem hospital to drain the blood flooding his brain, his close aides would only say: We are praying for a miracle. Minutes after he was admitted to the hospital, acting prime minister Ehud Olmert assumed his powers. This time there was no hesitation, unlike after his stroke three weeks ago. The rabbis and religious parties added to the sense of crisis by asking the public to pray for him. Everyone began to understand that, even if the operation was a success, Ariel Sharon would not be fit to resume his duties for months – if at all.
Israel without Ariel Sharon as prime minister will have to adjust to important changes:
1. Up until the March 28 general election, finance minister Ehud Olmert takes over full prime ministerial authority. He is expected to call a cabinet meeting in the coming hours to assume the reins of government and demonstrate continuity. Israel, bitterly divided by political strife and rivalries, badly needs a unifying hand at the helm, a role which it is hard to see Olmert filling.
2. He will be called upon to perform a strong, unifying function for Kadima, the new party that Sharon fashioned in his own image, but without him lacks cohesive cement. He may be challenged by more popular figures. Many of its leading lights may think hard about returning to their parent-parties – Likud or Labor – or retiring from politics. Kadima is likely to reach the election a shadow of the party that, until Wednesday morning, shot to the top of all the opinion polls with prospects of between 40 to 50 seats in the 120-Knesset.
3. The security situation hangs in the balance. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt-Gen Dan Halutz obeyed Sharon’s guidelines to the letter, even when this meant confronting the country with grave difficulties. Neither appears capable of rising above this submissiveness to fill the leadership vacuum left by the stricken prime minister. Olmert may have to look around for a strong figure in defense to compensate for his own lack of experience and instill in the country the sense that security is in capable hands.
4. Sharon’s absence from the prime minister’s office will also have an effect on the Palestinians who are sunk in anarchy under the weak leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon had tacitly indicated that Israel would not interfere with Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian general election in 20 days. Now, Hamas is fully capable of taking advantage of Israel’s political weakness for a full-scale terror offensive.
5. Until Wednesday night, the most significant strategic game in progress) in the Middle East (aside from Iraq) was the US-French drive against Syrian president Bashar Assad, which is far from over. Now, with George Bush’s faithful ally in Jerusalem incapacitated, the pieces have shifted to new places on the regional board.

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