- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

TEL AVIV — Ariel Sharon’s outsized personality, security credentials and centrist political base will be extremely hard to replace if Israel’s ailing leader passes from the scene at a time of maximum uncertainty in the Middle East.

The prime minister’s debilitating stroke raises hard questions in Israel, in Washington and across the Middle East as Israelis and Palestinians gear up for critical elections.

“We’re talking about politics in the Middle East. Sharon’s personality — his relationship with President Bush and the personal understandings he has with other key players — are critical to the success of his government’s policies,” said Samar Assad, executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Center.

Mr. Sharon’s five years as prime minister produced a tectonic shift in Israeli politics, with the hawkish ex-general moving the electorate to the center with his unilateral decision to relinquish Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

There were early signs that Israel’s famously bare-knuckled politics had been put on hold by Mr. Sharon’s stroke.

Conservative Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a bitter rival of the prime minister, offered prayers for Mr. Sharon’s recovery and called off plans for Likud ministers to pull out of the Cabinet. Tommy Lapid of the secular Shinui Party, fired from Mr. Sharon’s government in 2004, said the “whole nation” was praying for Mr. Sharon.

But in the long term, the mantle of champion of the political center is now up for grabs. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a lifelong politician, is widely seen as lacking the forcefulness to push through policies championed by Mr. Sharon.

“A majority opinion is not necessarily a majority of Israeli voters,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Sharon has made a political breakthrough in showing the tremendous political support at the center, but the demand for that kind of leadership would not be satisfied by Olmert at this point,” he said.

One example: Crucial elections for a new Palestinian government set for Jan. 25 have been put in doubt over whether Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem will be allowed to vote.

“Sharon has the weight and the trust to push that through if he wants,” said Miss Assad. “Coming from any other player on the Israeli political scene, voters would have their doubts.”

U.S. officials said yesterday their first concern was Mr. Sharon’s health, but expressed hope the Palestinian vote and the Middle East peace process can proceed under Mr. Olmert, a Sharon ally.

“I do believe that the desire for peace, the desire for a stable relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, is one that runs deep and wide in Israeli society,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Washington yesterday.

Mr. Sharon’s two-month-old centrist party, Kadima, has attracted figures from both his old right-wing political base, Likud, and from the leftist Labor Party, including former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Recent polls gave Kadima a 2-1 advantage over Labor and a 3-1 lead on Likud, now run by Mr. Netanyahu, but it is not clear if Mr. Olmert can retain power within Kadima or keep the supporters Mr. Sharon attracted.

“Sharon was the queen bee that everyone stayed in the hive with,” said Bar-Ilan University political scientist Sam Lehman-Wilzig. “Now that the queen bee is going, there’s a question of whether there will be fighting in the hive.”

But a new round of party switches may be limited because of growing public disenchantment with politicians who move too easily between parties.

“You’re going to get roasted if you’re viewed as jumping ship,” Mr. Lehman-Wilzig added.

Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said Mr. Sharon’s illness comes at a lull in the Middle East peace efforts, with all sides awaiting the Palestinian vote and the planned Israeli general elections two months later.

But he said there were continuing reports that Mr. Sharon personally was laying the groundwork with President Bush for major new steps to take after the Israeli vote — with the expectation that Mr. Sharon would return as prime minister to push the concessions through.

“Those understandings are almost certainly out the window now,” he said. “It’s very likely we’re looking at a long pause before the United States is prepared to make a significant effort on the Palestinian issue.”

Joshua Mitnick reported from Tel Aviv. David R. Sands reported from Washington.

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