Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sharon's Health and the Upcoming Elections

Not even a week has gone by since my first post on the upcoming Israeli elections, and already the playing field has been transformed. Word has come from Jerusalem this evening that Kadima’s standard-bearer, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has suffered what is being described by Israeli media as a “minor brain incident” (a stroke) and has been transported to the Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospital. Channel 10 reported that he lost consciousness for a brief time, but the latest reports on Israel’s state-run television claim he is conscious. The fact that Sharon’s two sons have been reported to have rushed to the hospital might possibly belie the current upbeat reporting from Ein Kerem.

I described Kadima as a “vanity party,” somewhat akin to Ben Gurion’s Rafi party, and even more so the short-lived La-Am party of 1969. The corpulent 77 year-old Prime Minister was running a “one-man show,” and the raison d’ĂȘtre for the new party was to provide the Prime Minister a political venue to continue on his personal political path of “painful decisions” that are called for in the roadmap timetable which Sharon promised to pursue.

If this indeed is a minor health incident, then it is possible that nothing has changed in the political calculations leading up to the March 28, 2006 elections. This may be akin to the looming health problems which plague US Vice President Dick Cheney – but such looming questions concerning the number one man (not the number two) in what essentially is a one-man party can easily upset the battle plan for the upcoming political campaign. Now there is the issue of Sharon’s health to contend with. Even if Sharon experiences a full and immediate recovery from this cerebral vascular accident, there can be no pushing the genie of questioning Sharon’s physical stamina back into the bottle.

If this reported “slight stroke” in any way diminishes Sharon’s ability to function as Prime Minister and to campaign as Kadima’s standard-bearer, then obviously all bets are off. With Israeli domestic politics in such a tumultuous state, and the ballot clock relentlessly ticking, there seems nothing to do but for all the political players to press ahead. One man to pay close attention to in both the short term and the long term is Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, former mayor of Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, Olmert would serve as Sharon’s stand-in if Sharon is incapacitated as Prime Minister. And as one of the most prominent defenders of Sharon’s pragmatic approach to advancing a deal with the Palestinians, Olmert would emerge as a leading voice in a Kadima bereft of Sharon.

Will recent defectors from Likud to Kadima come back to the fold, now that the leader has broken stride? Can the strange bedfellows who make up the new-found Kadima alliance remain docile these trying next few days? I have no answer, but it will be interesting to see what happens next.

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