“If Ariel Sharon eats one too many donuts this Hanukkah and for some reason isn’t around for the coming elections, I won’t lose any sleep over it.”
So quipped an Israeli friend to me in Jerusalem on New Year’s Eve 2006, only days before the massive stroke that left the Israeli Prime Minister in a coma, with enough brain damage to end his political career if and when he wakes up.
Ironically, the man who spoke these words once counted himself among Sharon’s fiercest supporters.
The Sharon he knew and admired had for decades been a right-wing icon in Israel: He was the brilliant general with a hand in winning each of Israel’s wars; he founded the right-wing Likud Party that ended thirty years of Labor Party rule; he led the movement to build Jewish settlements across the Palestinian-populated West Bank and Gaza Strip after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; he vociferously opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization providing for Palestinian autonomy; and in 2000, as opposition leader, he marched to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – formerly the site of the Jewish Temple, now home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque – to assert Israel’s sovereignty over the revered site.
To say that Sharon has mellowed in the five years since becoming Prime Minister would be an understatement.
While he never relented from his campaign against Palestinian terrorist organizations – terror-related deaths in Israel fell to 52 in 2005, down from 452 in 2002 – Sharon reached the conclusion that Israel would need to relinquish its control over the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, thus freeing itself of millions of Palestinian Arabs, for it to remain both a Jewish and democratic state.
Sharon made his first break from the “Greater Israel” camp in 2002 by accepting the Road Map for Middle-East Peace, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel; in 2004, he permanently turned Israel’s nationalist camp against him by introducing his “Disengagement Plan,” a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank – a move he carried out successfully in August.
Though such peace overtures alienated Sharon’s former supporters on the far-right – and threatened to make him the second Prime Minister in a decade to be assassinated by Jewish extremists – they earned him the respect of Israel’s ever-growing number of centrist voters as well as many of its longtime leftists.
Sharon capitalized on this broad-based support a few months ago to form a new centrist party, Kadima (“Forward,” in Hebrew), attracting several other Likud figures and high-profile moderates from across Israel’s political establishment.
Polls showing Sharon and his new party sweeping the elections on March 28 reflected the widespread confidence Sharon had inspired for his performance as Prime Minister. Many Israelis had come to mythologize Sharon, believing he would be around for years to come; they seemed to forget that the 77-year old leader weighed over 250 pounds on a 5’7″ frame and had a history of health difficulties.
Even after Sharon suffered a mild stroke on December 18, most Israelis claimed that Sharon’s questionable health would not dissuade them from voting to re-elect him. When lightning struck again on January 5, the country finally panicked. With Sharon nearing death, doctors at Hadassah hospital performed three emergency surgeries to stem the massive bleeding in his brain.
While well wishes poured in to Jerusalem from foreign capitols across the world, many Palestinians took to the streets in celebration of the Israeli leader’s seemingly imminent demise. Others, like Reverend Pat Robertson in America, claimed that Sharon was suffering Divine retribution for “dividing God’s land.”
Meanwhile in Israel, with elections less than three months away, people began to wonder what would become of the party Sharon had founded barely six weeks before.
Given the Prime Minister’s larger-than-life stature, many political pundits had written off Kadima as a one-man party that would crumble without Sharon.
They were wrong.
While Sharon’s prognosis is dire, Kadima’s is excellent. The party passed its first test by avoiding a power squabble and rallying around Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its new leading man. Valuable figures have remained in the party, including 82-year old Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister and Labor Party member.
Incredibly, the party is performing as well in polls under Olmert as it was under Sharon (over 40 Knesset seats for Kadima, according to most surveys; fewer than 20 and 15 for Labor and Likud, respectively). Clearly, Kadima’s out-of-the-gate strength reflected widespread support not just for Sharon himself but for his pragmatic policies.
In this vein, Olmert has always been the most logical successor to Sharon. Since losing the Likud primary to Sharon in 1999, Olmert has become his most loyal political ally – a sidekick of sorts – defending Sharon’s every move as if it were his own.
In a trick the Israeli media quickly picked up upon, for example, Sharon would dispatch Olmert to introduce controversial measures – “trial balloons,” they came to be called – in order to gauge their support within or outside Israel. Thus, it was Olmert who first floated the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in December 2003, weeks before Sharon made the plan public.
Unlike Sharon and most other Israeli prime ministers, however, Olmert’s only army experience was as a correspondent for a military journal. First elected to Israel’s Knesset at the age of 28 – a record at the time – this lifetime politician made his name during his two terms as mayor of Jerusalem.
Though Olmert lacks Sharon’s security credentials and Santa Claus charm, a recent 71% approval rating shows that the Israeli public is giving him the benefit of the doubt in this chaotic time.
If Olmert sustains this support and triumphs on March 28, he will face a fresh set of challenges that made even Sharon cringe:
Keeping nuclear weapons from the hands of Iran, whose new president has called the Holocaust “a myth” and declared that “Israel should be wiped off the map;”
Preventing further suicide bombings and stopping the firing of Qassam rockets at Israeli towns from the now Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip;
Ending artillery fire from Lebanon by Hizbullah and, according to new reports, Al Qaeda;
And, of course, reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians on the West Bank or, failing that, unilaterally withdrawing to defensible borders.
Whether or not the comatose Sharon knows it, the torch has already been passed from him to Olmert and a new generation of Israeli leaders. And given the existential threats their country now faces, they have no time to stop running.
Welcome to politics in Israel, where domestic issues always come second.