- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

The massive stroke that felled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has effectively ended the career of one of Israel’s greatest wartime leaders and one of the most important recent world statesmen. With his departure from the political scene, Washington has lost one of its closest strategic allies in the Middle East, and Israeli politics have been turned upside down. His successor, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will assume the leadership of the Kadima Party founded two months ago by Mr. Sharon and could well be chosen to lead his party into Israel’s next national election, which is scheduled for March 28. But with the departure of Mr. Sharon, who was the overwhelming favorite, it is almost certain to be a much more competitive race, with one major beneficiary potentially being the new leader of the Likud Party, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During his tenure as prime minister of Israel, which lasted nearly five years, Mr. Sharon produced an extraordinary legacy. Under his leadership, Israel has built large portions of a new security fence and waged a series of successful military campaigns that have done serious damage to the Palestinian terror networks targeting his nation.

At the same time, Mr. Sharon — long caricatured as an incorrigible ideologue — proved willing to risk his political career by unilaterally withdrawing from Jewish settlements in territories. That policy angered settlers who had been the prime minister’s staunchest supporters. But the combination of a tough approach to fighting terrorism and a willingness to make territorial concessions has proven to be very popular with many Israeli voters. That’s why in November Mr. Sharon left the Likud Party, which he founded in 1973, and formed his own center party, named Kadima.

Under his leadership, Kadima became Israel’s dominant party, effectively supplanting Likud on the right and the Labor Party on the left. A survey published earlier this week showed Kadima headed by Mr. Sharon winning 42 seats in the 120-member parliament. Labor came in second with 19 and Likud finished third with 14 seats. A second poll, published just hours before the prime minister suffered the massive stroke, asked voters to choose between Likud, Labor and Kadima without Mr. Sharon: That poll showed each of the three leading parties winning less than 20 seats. But a third poll published yesterday showed Kadima headed by either Mr. Olmert or Mr. Peres winning at least 40 seats, more than double the number of seats that Likud or Labor would win.

Right now, it is anyone’s guess what will happen to the Kadima Party after Mr. Sharon. When Mr. Peres left Labor to join Kadima, he said that Mr. Sharon was the one politician who could advance the peace process. And Mr. Olmert may soon face a challenge to his leadership of the Kadima Party from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

But Amir Peretz, who ousted Mr. Peres as Labor Party leader two months ago, faces the most difficult challenge. An archdove, he has thus far campaigned almost entirely on a left-wing, populist, soak-the-rich platform. He faces a steep uphill climb to win back voters who have abandoned Labor in droves since 2001. If the security situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, look for Israeli swing voters to lean to the right.

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