The sudden illness of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a political giant whose acumen in recent years has eclipsed all other leaders, has given Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party a chance to emerge from the shadows.
"It resurrects Likud," said Dr. Joseph Frager, an activist and Likud supporter. "It’s clearly going to strengthen Likud."
Frager and others interviewed here stressed that they wish Sharon a speedy recovery and never wanted for Likud to become a contender in the March 28 election this way.
But they also suggested that Sharon’s incapacity effectively lifted a veil over Israeli electoral politics and forced voters to take a second look at all the candidates in the race.
"Likud has new life, and the religious parties, too, have new life," Frager said. "The playing field is much more level."
Eric Rappaport, a senior policy adviser for American Friends of Likud, said he believes Likud’s success at the polls in March will be triggered in part by the expected success of Hamas in the Jan. 25 election for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"It’s pretty clear Hamas will do well, and anytime a terrorist organization does well, it is better for someone who is perceived more of a hawk and less likely to give in to international pressure and what Palestinians want," Rappaport said.
He pointed out that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz have "no foreign policy experience."
Netanyahu, on the other hand, served as prime minister in the 1990s and is striving to keep Likud a "more centrist" organization.
"He did not want people to say that all that is left of Likud are the right-wing supporters," Rappaport said. "Even after the disengagement … it is important for Likud to keep a centrist image."
One of the first things Netanyahu did after being elected head of Likud last month was to announce that he would remove radical members and members who had been convicted of criminal offenses.
Although Netanyahu did not mention anyone by name, the Israeli media said he was targeting Moshe Feiglin, the head of Likud’s "Jewish Leadership" faction who favors the forced expulsion of Arabs from the territories. Feiglin later withdrew his candidacy for a spot on the Likud list for Knesset seats.
Although he may be seeking to portray a more centrist image, Netanyahu still supports many of the so-called rebels in Likud who had joined him in opposing the Gaza withdrawal. Among them are Natan Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein, Uzi Landau and Ehud Yatom, according to Ari Harow, executive director of American Friends of Likud.
"These are people who have been good for the party and good for the country," Harow said by phone from Israel. "I don’t think it has anything to do with their stance on the Gaza withdrawal. These are people who have been loyal to him and the party and who best represent the State of Israel."
As the Jerusalem Post pointed out, Netanyahu also supported for Knesset seats so-called moderates who supported the Gaza disengagement, including Yuval Steinitz and Michael Eitan.
The Likud Central Committee of 3,200 members was to meet late this week to compose its slate for Knesset seats.
Although the outcome of the Palestinian election was expected to help Netanyahu, Harow said he is confident that Netanyahu would win the Israeli election "regardless of the outcome of the Palestinian election. … Likud was picking up momentum even before Sharon [was stricken], and it had to do with the fact that Peretz was promoting his economic and social platforms."
He cited a report by Deutsche Bank last month that said the "biggest risk [Israel faces] from a fiscal perspective would be if the Labor Party under Amir Peretz won the most seats in the Knesset."
Harow noted Netanyahu’s two-year tenure as finance minister under Sharon during which he advanced free-market policies and "proved convincingly that he was in the process of turning around the economy."
Even though Netanyahu is no longer in the government, Harow said he is still "working tirelessly to pass the 2006 budget … because he understands the importance of passing the budget and the great strides Israel has taken under his economic policies."
"In the 2006 budget there are steps to close the gap between the rich and the poor … but only a strong economy will help those people" on a more permanent basis, Harow said.
Ronn Torossian, the CEO of 5W Public Relations who has been a publicist for Netanyahu and Olmert, said Sharon’s illness will cause some political unrest in Israel, but he believed Netanyahu would again be elected prime minister and that Likud would win 35 to 40 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. (Polls this week showed Likud winning 15 seats.) That is roughly the same number of seats Sharon’s Kadima Party had been expected to win before Sharon suffered a massive stroke Jan. 4.
"Bibi has a better shot among the Israeli public than does Olmert," Torossian contended, using Netanyahu’s nickname. "Likud is still the Likud. For a Likud supporter to leave Likud and vote for somebody other than Sharon, I just don’t believe it. No third party in Israel has every succeeded, and without Sharon" Kadima too will fail.
Likud supporters, Torossian added, might have turned their back on Likud to vote for Sharon and Kadima, but without Sharon at the helm of the new party, "there is no question" these voters will return to the Likud Party.