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Back from Stroke, Sharon’s Health Has Become an Issue in Elections

Only two things seem capable of stopping Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima party from winning March elections by a landslide: a hail of Palestinian rockets from the Gaza Strip or a turn for the worse in Sharon’s health. Ever since the prime minister suffered a minor stroke last week — he’s scheduled for a heart catheterization procedure in January — speculation has been rife as to what might happen if Sharon were seriously incapacitated.

Some pundits say it would open the center of the Israeli political spectrum — space occupied today largely by Kadima — to fierce competition from other parties.

Some doubt whether anyone but Sharon would have the clout to carry through further withdrawals from the West Bank. And some predict that without Sharon, Kadima would simply implode.

What’s clear is that Sharon’s brief hospitalization has put the health issue and the question of who would succeed him as prime minister near the top of the election agenda.

Another potential embarrassment for Kadima could be ongoing Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli civilians. The fact that just months after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, a move touted as Sharon’s greatest foreign policy success, Palestinian rockets are falling almost daily on Israeli civilians and even reaching the port city of Ashkelon could have a major impact on the March ballot.

Traditionally, Israeli elections have been won or lost in the battle between Labor and Likud over the middle ground between them. The difference in this election is that Kadima already has captured most of that political space.

If Sharon is taken out of the equation, however, both Labor and Likud would hope to make inroads into the centrist vote.

Regardless of whether or not Sharon is there, both Labor and Likud are positioning themselves for an assault on the centrist fringes. Labor leader Amir Peretz is deliberately distancing himself from the dovish left: “We are not Geneva,” he says, referring to the left’s “Geneva accord” peace initiative, which offers the Palestinians additional concessions beyond the peace plan that was on the table before the intifada began.

Peretz adds that Labor would be even tougher on terrorism than Kadima or the right, because “no one could accuse us of trying to scuttle peace prospects.”

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu also is trying to boost his centrist credentials. His representatives describe the Likud as “a liberal centrist movement,” and Netanyahu is moving to marginalize the disproportionate influence within the party of a far-right grouping led by Moshe Feiglin.

Other smaller parties contesting the centrist space are Yosef “Tommy” Lapid’s secular Shinui Party and Tafnit, a small party formed by a former Israel Defense Forces’ deputy chief of staff Uzi Dayan, which is running on an anti-corruption platform. These parties also would benefit from Sharon’s absence.

Some pundits suggest that Kadima could disintegrate without Sharon. Leading Kadima politicians, such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, respond that Kadima reflects a deep need in Israeli society that goes far beyond Sharon the man: A desire to create a Jewish and democratic Israel, free from terrorism, living within borders recognized by most of the international community.

Livni says Kadima stems from an awakening of right-wing Israelis from the dream of Greater Israel and a recognition among left-wingers that there can be no instant peace with the Palestinians. Without Sharon, the party might do less well at the polls, but still well enough to go on pressing for what it believes, Livni told Israel TV.

In Sharon’s absence, Livni and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert probably would vie for the leadership. Olmert is far more experienced, is very close to Sharon and was the first Cabinet minister to back the Gaza withdrawal plan.

Livni, another Sharon favorite, formulated compromises with Sharon’s Likud opponents in government and is drafting Kadima’s election platform. Her big advantage is that she is more popular than Olmert: Polls show Kadima under Livni winning 30 seats to just 26 under Olmert. Under Sharon, however, the party is projected to get around 40 seats.

In the wake of Sharon’s stroke, some pundits are advocating that leaders of each party name a No. 2, who would take over if the leader is unable to perform his duties. In Sharon’s case, the deputy would be Olmert, insiders say.

However, there’s a more fundamental question: Could any other leader, in Kadima or in the rival parties, continue Sharon’s policy of partitioning the Land of Israel?

Ha’aretz commentator Yoel Marcus thinks not. Sharon, he writes, is “one of those legendary leaders whose abilities and personal character bisected history at precisely that moment when their strength and leadership qualities were needed.”

In Marcus’ view, only Sharon can dismantle settlements, end the occupation and make an agreement with the Palestinians.

“At this point in time, Sharon has become the kind of leader who is irreplaceable,” he concludes.

So how ill or frail is the 77-year-old Sharon? According to doctors who gave details of his condition on Monday, the minor stroke he suffered has not impaired his mental or physical faculties in any way. But, they say, he will have to undergo cardiac catheterization next month to seal a tiny perforation between the walls of his heart, which they describe as a minor physical defect he was born with. The procedure is relatively simple and not expected to cause any problems.

Sharon’s medical record shows that he was wounded in the thigh during the 1948 War of Independence and has a slight limp; he has had gall and kidney stones removed; has suffered from gout; and, at 5 feet 7 inches tall, is obese at 250 pounds.

Still, his doctors insist, an exhaustive battery of tests shows that Sharon is strong and healthy, does not suffer from high blood pressure and does not have signs of arteriosclerosis.

The most serious threat to Sharon’s re-election could come from Gaza. The prime minister has ordered the IDF to do whatever it takes to put an end to Palestinian rocket fire.

One possibility is the establishment of an Israeli-held security zone in northern Gaza to force the rocket launchers back and put Israeli towns and cities out of range, but the Palestinians say they already have longer-range rockets which they will not hesitate to use.

If the security situation deteriorates drastically and the Likud is able to blame it on the withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon and Kadima could be in trouble.

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