Sharon’s Kadima Is Strangely Impervious to Security Setbacks

Prime minister Ariel Sharon and his new Kadima party continue to crest the opinion polls. They have for the moment emerged without a scratch from the security mishaps of the past week, even though these incidents accentuate the heightened security perils preying on the country as a result of last summer’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
Katyusha rockets from Lebanon, later claimed by al Qaeda in Iraq, struck two Israeli towns, damaging property. Qassam missiles, a daily occurrence, are now winging towards the important port town of Ashkelon. Instead of fighting the terrorists, the Palestinian security forces are idle in the face of the general lawlessness engulfing the Gaza Strip, while the Egyptian military contingent imported to keep the Palestinians up to scratch stand by and watch. A young Israeli officer was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in the northern West Bank on his way to an attack in Israel. A New Year countrywide alert refers to 50 terrorist threats, 10 of them specific. The purported security measures brokered by the US secretary of state for the Egyptian-Gazan border crossing at Rafah have crashed. Al Qaeda’s infiltration of the Gaza Strip since the Israeli troop pullout from the Egyptian border – long predicted by debkafile – is now an officially acknowledged fact.
All these events occurred in a single week. They were accompanied by the exposure in a damaging press leak of Sharon’s state of health as being a lot more serious than given out by his aides after his stroke two weeks ago.
Nonetheless, the latest polls place the prime minister’s one-man party Kadima miles ahead of the field with a potential 40-42 seats in the 120-member Knesset (the figures vary from poll to poll), Labor plummeting (from 22) to 16-19, and Likud climbing back to 16 and rising. Shinui (Change)’s respectable 15-mandate representation in the outgoing Knesset has melted away to 1-5. In contrast, the Russian-immigrant Israel Beitenu appears to be prospering – up from 4 to 7. The factions further to the right and left are shrinking while the ultra-religious parties are holding the line.
It is still early days to predict at which end the highly volatile Israeli political see-saw – essentially between three parties – will come down.
Given the security uncertainties piling up this week, even an indulgent public showed concern at the prime minister’s brinkmanship over naming a second-in-command before he undergoes heart surgery under full anesthetic in the next two weeks. It is part of his overall strategy of keeping in his head the list of Kadima’s parliamentary candidates for the March 28 elections.
In Kadima, there is no nonsense about running the party’s A List past primaries or a party consensus. One man makes all the decisions. There is plenty of room, therefore, for speculation. The latest guesses award the top ten spots to the ever-faithful finance minister and Dep. PM Ehud Olmert, who comes next after Sharon, followed by the equally-constant justice minister Tsipi Livni, the former Ex-Shin Beit director Avi Dichter who makes his debut in politics, then ex-Likud Meir Sheetreet and two ex-Laborites, Haim Ramon and Shimon Peres, who is presented as Sharon’s senior teammate. They are followed by another covey of ex-Likudniks – defense minister Shaul Mofaz, Tzahi Hanegbi, tourist minister Avraham Hirschson, Ronnie Bar-On and internal security minister Gideon Ezra.
Israel’s basic laws omit clear procedures for appointing a stand-in for the prime minister should be become unexpectedly incapacitated. During the early hours of Sharon’s stroke, his aides said the question was irrelevant. Now, rather than focusing on repairing this omission, they are avidly hunting for the source of the media leak which gave away too much damaging information on Sharon’s heart condition. The public finally learned that this condition had been documented and concealed months before his not-so-mild stroke. This revelation tarnished the fit-as-a-fiddle image his spin doctors worked so hard to present to the electorate.
The betrayal almost certainly came from a prime minister’s office insider, which made it a security problem and not just a breach of loyalty.
For this reason, perhaps, an outsider has been given access to the PMO’s most delicate maneuvers. According to debkafile‘s political sources, former agriculture minister Shalom Simhon of Labor is lobbying for ex-prime minister Ehud Bark to step in as potential acting prime minister or defense minister in the post-election cabinet, which Sharon is expected to lead. Simhon’s selling-point is that, in an uncertain security situation, Barak is the only authoritative figure qualified to step into the b reach, as both a past prime minister and former chief of staff. He would also be able to hold the new party together, says Simhon, if Sharon were forced into extended convalescence.
As a further incentive, Simhon promises a generous dowry for the marriage with Kadima, a substantial Labor following. This would further deprive Amir Peretz who has consistently turned a cold shoulder to Barak.
Can Peretz, amid a sharp dip in the polls from his early head start, afford to misplace a second ex-prime minister after losing the 82-year old Shimon Peres to Kadima? A group of veteran Labor ex-ministers think not. Suddenly the not-so-popular Barak looks like a glittering electoral asset, the only one able to arrest the slide which threatens their footholds in the next Knesset. The Peretz social agenda is falling flat amid rising security concerns which the new Labor leader and his close advisers are not qualified to handle. The Labor oldtimers are therefore pleading with Peretz to save the day by bringing ex-general Barak into the magic circle and promoting him to second spot.
The Labor chairman is firmly against this step and refuses to admit his leadership needs propping up. Although 44% of Labor members canvassed this week voiced disappointment in his leadership, he is sticking by his campaign rallying slogans on social inequality and most of all adhering to the strict guidelines laid down by the sponsors who sent him into orbit – the dovish former minister Uzzi Baram, former MK Haggai Merom and MK Yuli Tamir. All three are sworn foes of Ehud Barak.
The ex-prime minister, whose tenure was cut short by the onset of Yasser Arafat’s 2000 declaration of war on Israel and defeat at the polls by Ariel Sharon, need not expect a warm welcome to Kadima from the two previous Labor hitch-hikers, Peres and Ramon, who will see him as a threat to their safe positions in the top five or ten.
They all know that the entire list is still in a state of flux, with Sharon keeping his oddly-matched party members in a state of high suspense.
The reciprocal effect of the forthcoming Palestinian election in January and the Israeli poll two months later is intensifying. Much depends on the former taking place on time, Mahmoud Abbas surviving the rising anarchy in Palestinian areas and hanging on up to the finishing line, and most of all the scale of the Hamas victory. At roughly the same time, Sharon is preparing to go into hospital for heart surgery leaving a large question mark hanging over his recovery period and his willingness to name an the acting head of government. debkafile‘s defense experts all concur in predicting a further deterioration in security in the course of January, a situation which is bound to impinge on the fortunes of the parties contesting Israel’s general election. It will also affect the party platforms to be shaped in the coming weeks.

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