Centrist Cause In Israel Seeks New Leader
Sharon's Absence Leaves Electorate in Uncertainty

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 6, 2006

JERUSALEM, Jan. 5 -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forged a new centrist movement among Israelis who embraced his push to give up land occupied in war, but his massive stroke just months before national elections has left the electorate with no obvious party or politician to continue what he began.

Through force of personality, deft tactical decisions and experience dating to the founding of the nation in 1948, Sharon has moved during his nearly five years as prime minister to establish what he believed would be more defensible borders for the Jewish state. By giving up the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank, he also hoped to separate the fast-growing Palestinian population from Israel to ensure that Israel's Jews remain the majority.

His abrupt exit from public life, which analysts and politicians agreed Thursday was virtually certain, could lead to a period of disorganization on Israel's fractious political scene. Whether expanding Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank or uprooting settlers in Gaza, Sharon favored unilateral steps in dealing with the Palestinians, rather than the negotiations that they preferred. His pullout efforts also angered Israel's religious-nationalist movement, whose members he once encouraged to settle in the territories envisioned by Palestinians as part of their state.

But his decisions in recent years appealed to centrist voters who have grown weary of Israel's nearly four-decade occupation of that land and the fragile peace talks frequently disrupted by violence and each side's domestic political extremists. Now those voters have few options from which to choose in national elections scheduled for March, a number of Israeli political analysts said Thursday.

"What the Israeli public has lost today is the unprecedented degree of optimism with the only person who could carry out unpopular historic decisions incapacitated," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "You don't see any figure of his status with the courage, the political acumen and the domestic strength to carry out such decisions. The whole public was waiting for Sharon's last act."

Just as the 1993 Oslo peace accords lost their chief defender when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated two years later by a Jewish extremist, Sharon's stroke appears to have ended Israel's latest attempt to settle the conflict over land it first occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Sharon's idea, hatched during the most recent Palestinian uprising, called for exiting some of the occupied territory and for the creation of a Palestinian state on what was left. It relied in part on support from the Bush administration, which endorsed some key elements of the plan in an April 2004 letter from President Bush to Sharon.

Sharon infuriated the hawkish Likud Party he helped found more than three decades ago by evacuating 8,500 Israeli settlers from Gaza last year, leaving behind a population of 1.3 million Palestinians. By leaving Gaza, Sharon may have guaranteed a Jewish majority in Israel and the West Bank for another decade.

Palestinian officials, such as legislator Hanan Ashrawi, said the land and natural resources remaining under Sharon's plan would not allow for a viable Palestinian state to emerge. The plan also remained silent on the future status of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, who have demanded the right to return to their homes. Ashrawi called Sharon the "master of unilateralism," a term she defined as encompassing settlement construction, building a separation barrier along a route that cuts into the West Bank, and the many assassinations of Palestinian political leaders.

"The absence of such a charismatic figure who controls single-handedly the political apparatus will be very significant to the political map," Ashrawi said. "Right now you have a weakened government. The weaker you are, the more insecure you are, and the more hard-line you are. And, of course, during elections you have heightened rhetoric, so we do not expect anything to be benign at this point."

After breaking with Likud and forming a new party, Kadima, the Hebrew word for "forward," Sharon pledged to abandon unilateralism for the staged phases of the U.S.-backed plan known as the "road map," with the eventual goal of creating a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel. He also promised to maintain major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, in any final agreement with the Palestinians.

His formulation raised the prospect that the rest of the West Bank -- stony hills and desert that religious nationalists believe is part of the biblical land of Israel -- would become part of a Palestinian state. And although Sharon vowed to make his next moves through negotiation, the increasing unrest in Gaza, the rising political clout of the radical group Hamas in the territories, and the apparent inability of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to ensure law and order presented him with arguments to proceed on his own.

"What Sharon and Kadima were offering centrist Israeli society was the idea of unilateral withdrawal, posited in the realization that neither occupation or the peace process are real options," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem that is often hawkish on security issues.

"But unilateralism is the first casualty here," he continued. "Only Sharon had the will and the clout to take the next step with unilateralism, which will be far more traumatic than Gaza with the evacuation of tens of thousands of the most ideological settlers."

Sharon, 77, had created the centrist party just months ago. Now, its once-assured triumph in March elections appears in doubt.

Halevi said Sharon's absence means that Israel "no longer has a coherent governing party," a conclusion echoed by Israeli and Palestinian officials as they tried to make sense of Kadima's future and predict the direction of the country's two traditional movements, the dovish Labor Party and hawkish Likud.

Soon after Sharon announced the creation of Kadima in November, Israeli public opinion surveys showed it winning as many as a third of the seats in the Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament. Kadima's popularity came primarily at the expense of Likud, whose new leader, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has positioned it as the chief opponent of further territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

But a poll conducted Wednesday for Israel Radio, just before the prime minister was rushed to the hospital, indicated that much of Kadima's popularity comes largely from Sharon. The survey found that without Sharon's leadership, Kadima would win 13 Knesset seats, with as many as 36 seats suddenly cast into the undecided column.

The realization prompted some members of Kadima, which drew from both Labor and Likud, to call for swift elections to select the party's candidate list. By the end of the day Thursday, party members appeared to be rallying behind acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in hopes of avoiding a divisive party leadership fight.

Haim Ramon, one of three Knesset members who joined Kadima from the Labor Party, urged members to rally behind Olmert, a former Likud member who as vice premier assumed power when Sharon, his close ally, fell ill.

"If we start a struggle about who is first and who is second, Kadima won't make it until March 28," Ramon said in an interview on Israel's Channel 10.

Olmert, a hawkish former mayor of Jerusalem who supported Sharon's Gaza evacuation, is one of three former Likud members mentioned as a possible leader of Kadima.

Although he has long experience in Israeli politics, Olmert's blunt style and shifting political positions over the years have alienated many prospective supporters. Past opinion polls have found that much of the Israeli public does not trust him, but a survey conducted for the newspaper Haaretz and Channel 10 on Thursday showed that Kadima would win 40 seats under his leadership.

Another leading candidate, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, is highly popular among the Israeli public but has scant experience in national politics. The other figure mentioned as possible party leader is Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose hawkish reputation could reassure Kadima supporters uneasy about the party's security credentials without Sharon.

"I do not expect a movement of Kadima members back to Likud to happen now," said Itzik Regev, a member of the Likud Central Committee and a longtime supporter of Sharon. "First both parties will have internal elections to choose their Knesset candidates, and after that I could see the two parties running together in a joint list."

Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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