Post-Sharon Politics - The End of an Era in Israel

JERUSALEM — It's Friday in Israel, and because the stores close early in preparation for the Jewish Sabbath, many shoppers are out buying last minute groceries. It's also the day when Israelis sit in cafes, drinking coffee with their friends and talking politics.  While Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, remains in serious condition in Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, the mood in the neighborhoods of Israel's national capital is not one of mourning and grieving, but one of uncertainty — a mix of hope and doubt about what will happen politically, 'post—Sharon'.  While some Israelis are brooding over the sudden disappearance from the political scene of their powerful and charismatic leader, others are facing the reality that it will no longer be 'politics as usual' leading up to the March 28th elections.

Sharon's legacy

As citizens here worry about the future, the Israeli government already has portrayed itself as 'unified' under the new leadership of Acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, despite the fact that he has not been popular among those in the Kadima party, nor within the majority of the Israeli population. For certain, he does not have the prestige of his predecessor, nor is he seen as one of the founding fathers of the State of Israel.  But Sharon was a father figure to many Israelis who had 'right' and 'left' leanings.  His government was one of the biggest in the history of the state, as he always aimed for bringing all parties together under one umbrella. Unity was one of Sharon's strengths — except when it came to the Gaza disengagement, which brought disunity and polarized the nation.

Sharon's ability to manipulate the political system, to carry out his U.S. backed policies in regard to Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, was also his downfall. In November 2005, he reportedly said, boldly, that he was the only one who could decide Israel's final borders. In several publications, including Newsweek and IMRA (Independent Review Media Analysis), there was every indication that, if Sharon were elected prime minister again, he would unilaterally withdraw from much greater territory than he was admitting to.

Sharon's own decisions to push a Palestinian state on the Palestinians even if they were not ready for it, seemed to be based on the continued stalemate of the Road Map plan. Because of hardliner terrorist groups with Islamic extremist ideologies, who refused to relinquish their claims for Israel's destruction, there was no moving forward in the diplomatic process. These same terrorists refused to adhere to Palestinian Chairman, Mahmoud Abbas' demands for them to give up arms and stop the violence. This meant that even Phase One of the Road Map could not be implemented. Sharon, a man bent on leaving a legacy of peace, could not, ultimately, adhere to such a non—starter plan. He would eventually implement his own plans as a military general and leading statesman in Israel and within the international community.

Despite Sharon's continued denials of such leanings, most of the Israeli population expected that he would implement his plans for further withdrawals from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Months ago, this writer heard from Sharon insiders, that in fact, if peace negotiations remained blocked, Sharon would go ahead and decide what settlements would remain part of Israel and which would not. Most likely, that decision would have caused a much greater rift in Israeli society due to the displacement of so many people from their land and homes. 

In the end, Sharon will not be known for bringing final peace to Israel nor for being able to control or stop Palestinian terror from resulting in deaths to Israelis and destruction to Israeli towns.  In fact, an increase in terror, escalation of violence on Israel's southern and northern borders, along with a looming war with Iran on the horizon, seems to be the predicted scenario for Israel's future. For sure, Arabs within this nation and in neighboring countries are looking at the present political condition of the Jewish state to see just how weakened Israel may become without Sharon's leadership.

The question is, how will the Arabs respond?  Will it be a response within a diplomatic framework of peace negotiations, or will it be with a hand on the trigger, on another explosive device, or on another Kassam rocket launcher?

Meanwhile, Sharon's reputation as a 'bulldozer' within his own ranks, threatened the ability of other politicians to gain the favor and trust of Israelis. There were no potential leaders that could fit his shoes, as he didn't allow it. Sharon had an iron fist rule, those under him felt it, and they were often silenced by his ability to silence any discourse in the ranks — that is, until the Likud 'rebels' challenged his leadership last year. But, eventually, Sharon bulldozed through that season of protest only to form his new Kadima ("forward") party, which has become more of a political movement to implement Sharon's policies for the State of Israel, than anything else. With an eye toward gaining more international acceptance of Israel as a Jewish democratic nation among the other nations of the world, Sharon's policies are expected to be continued for years if Kadima wins the majority of seats in the March election. 

Who will lead the nation?

Nothing is certain in Israeli politics. Questions remain if Kadima will continue to be the most popular party on the Israeli scene, especially with Ehud Olmert at the helm.  Will the newly elected leader of the Labor party, Amir Peretz, have a chance to prove himself to Israeli voters as their new leader?  Or, will Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel, get a second chance to lead the nation once again?

An initial consensus of Israeli public opinion in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, has revealed today that, while most Israelis think that Olmert and the Kadima party will win overall at the polls, more and more potential voters are talking about Netanyahu's gain in power now that Sharon is incapacitated. 

Ultimately, voters will have to decide, based on the new order of Israeli politics which has emerged since Sharon's sudden illness, who will ultimately run the country. It may end up being a coalition of parties, with Kadima and Likud in the lead — a partnership between Olmert and Netanyahu. That possibility is now a greater reality in a post—Sharon era.

Comments from Israeli citizens

Several Israelis gave me their opinions about the future of Israeli politics in lieu of the current crisis. Here are a few of their comments:

Coby, a worker in the Mevasseret Zion mall, west of the city limits: 

'In the election, I suppose that Olmert will be the leader of Kadima and he will be the next prime minister... I trust the way, not the man, but the way of Sharon. Olmert is his baby. From the beginning of the political way of Olmert, he went after Sharon. So, now it will be the same. He doesn't have the charisma, he's less than Sharon, but he's better than anyone else from Kadima, to be the leader.'

Sagid, a high—tech worker from Tel Aviv: 

'It's going to stay the same; Kadima will run for the elections. Probably they won't get the same mandate they would have received if they were with Sharon... I think Olmert is the best alternative today. Shimon Peres is the best, but he is too old. Netanyahu has a huge problem with integrity because the people don't believe him, because he zig zags, always going from one direction to another. Olmert hasn't been tested yet. People believe he might bring a new spirit, a new wave. He's more left wing today... The bottom line is that the Americans will decide what the policies of Israel will be, anyway.'

Jay, a religious Israeli from the southern neighborhood of B'et Shemesh:

'Olmert is trying to cover 18 ministries, which is nearly impossible, as no contingency plans were made.  I think Netanyahu has a chance of winning. He has proven himself as Finance Minister.'

Zed Lavy, from Elchanan (a town in the West Bank): 

'The polls are telling us Olmert will be the next prime minister. All the journalists have adopted Ehud Olmert, very quickly. He has all the abilities. But, you know, in the political situation in Israel, the journalists and newspapers decide who will take over Ariel Sharon's heritage... I like very very much Benjamin Netanyahu. (As former prime minister) the people didn't like him. But, he was very honest. All the media hated him because they represent the left wing in Israel...Why do I believe in Bibi Netanyahu?  Because, all the time, he said until the Arab people fulfill their obligations, we will not continue.'

Golan, manager of a photography store in the Jerusalem area: 

'I don't think Amir Peretz will be a good leader. He understands power. If he doesn't get what he wants, he stops things, like he did with the Histradut, he caused the whole country to go on strike. For now I don't see any leader, but maybe maybe Bibi Netanyahu. But, again, the Likud is corrupted. You have to choose—— if you want peace, or if you want a clear and uncorrupted system.  I think the people are going to want Kadima. I'm not going to vote for anyone.... I think that Kadima will pull together with the Likud.'

Alanna, a homemaker living in a Jerusalem suburb, out shopping with her daughter:

'I'm very worried and I am very sad. I think the old people feel like me because we don't know what will happen with the Palestinians and the other combination of politics in this area. So, we are very worried. We hope that we will be over this crisis... I hope Olmert will win the election. I think he has the qualities, but the big shoes of Arik Sharon is a problem for him, because the public, especially the right side of the political map, doesn't like him, and don't appreciate him as a strong personality like Arik Sharon. It might be a problem to make big steps in the relationship with the Palestinians... All of us have to wait and see what will happen after this crisis is over.'

C. Hart is a 25—year veteran journalist in print and broadcast media, living in Israel since 1995, reporting on political, military and diplomatic issues in the Middle East.