Although his Labor Party opponents insisted this week they would not make an issue of Ariel Sharon’s health as he campaigns for re-election in March, the minor stroke that left the prime minister temporarily incoherent Sunday is certain to be on voter’s minds.
"It’s a very precarious and fragile thing to have a party that at the moment is centered around one person and doesn’t really have an ideology, a philosophy, a platform or a structure," Colette Avital, a Labor Party Knesset member, said of Kadima, the party Sharon founded last month. "Should something happen to him, who is going to be next [to lead the party]?
"At least on the governmental level, according to our law, if Sharon is incapacitated, [Ehud] Olmert, the deputy prime minister, takes over. Now letís talk about party structure. Should Sharon come to disappear (and I don’t wish him that) who exactly is going to be the successor and how are they going to choose the successor?"
Avital noted that Kadima has attracted members with a diverse political philosophy, from Haim Ramon, formerly of the Labor Party, to Tzahi Hanegbi, the former interim chairman of the Likud Party. And she questioned how they were all going to subscribe to the same platform.
"You cannot base a whole party on the assumption that it is one person who is running the whole show and the others are little rats running around him," she said.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, agreed that Sharon’s illness "certainly highlights the fact that there is uncertainty as to what happens after Sharon" in Kadima.
But unlike Avital, Steinberg said he believes the party can become more than the embodiment of one man.
"Kadima represents a strong consensus towards pragmatism, and that could hold the party together after Sharon," he said. "It is centrist and less ideological, and there is a strong likelihood that various leaders will come out of this process after the elections.
"Sharon will have to keep it together for six months to a year, but there is enough of a common political basis, pragmatism and opposition to ideology that could keep this thing going after Sharon. The potential is there."
Sharon, 77, who was stricken Sunday as he drove in a motorcade to his ranch in the Negev, was released from Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem on Tuesday and ordered by his doctors to rest, lose weight and exercise. They said his slurred speech had been caused by a blood clot that was dissolved with a blood thinner.
Although doctors at a press conference tried to minimize the episode, saying Sharon had suffered no permanent damage and that the chances of another stroke were not increased, the Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted other doctors as saying that when Sharon arrived at the hospital, "he did not know what day it was, what time is was or where he was. For 45 minutes he could not count or perform basic movements."
They also said, "Throughout the first night of his hospitalization the confusion continued, to a lesser extent."
One of the first things Sharon did after his release from the hospital was to call his former Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory Monday in a primary for party chairman.
With 98 percent of the vote counted, Netanyahu had 44 percent of the vote, with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom next at 33 percent. Moshe Feiglin won 12 percent and Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz 9 percent.
Netanyahu becomes Likud’s candidate to replace Sharon as prime minister in elections on March 28. Amir Peretz, the former head of the Histadrut, the nation’s largest labor federation, is the Labor candidate.
Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said Netanyahu’s election crystallizes where Likud stands and "creates a problem" for two right-wing parties, the National Union and the National Religious Party.
"It means the Likud can’t pull from Kadima," he said. "[Netanyahu] saves the right flank and he loses the left flank.
"It’s clear that his campaign is going to be a dual campaign. One is going to be on the corruption issue [involving Sharon and his sons] and the other is going to be on the national security issue," Wilzig said. "He’s going to be playing to the hilt [the violence] going on in Gaza now … and he has a pretty strong case. He’s going to say, what are you doing, you want to give back the store? The big strategy is going to be getting back Likud defectors."
Although Wilzig said Netanyahu’s term as prime minister a decade ago was "catastrophic" and that he is "no longer the golden boy," Ethan Dor Shav of the Shalem Center argued that Netanyahu’s support comes from those who believe he has a real chance to become prime minister again.
"Silvan Shalom was never supported in the Likud because he could [win for] prime minister, he was supported because he could join Sharon [in a new coalition government]," Shav said. "Now that Sharon isn’t a given [because of his health], they’re going to vote for a person who could actually be prime minister, and Netanyahu is way ahead on that point."
"If something happened to Sharon yesterday, the Kadima Party would be in dire straits," he said. "They don’t have leadership or cohesiveness outside of Sharon. Kadima has nothing that holds them together outside of their trust in the ability of Sharon. I have no doubt that if something more severe had happened to Sharon, Kadima would have collapsed."
Shibley Telhami, a professor who holds the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland, said he believes both Sharon and Peretz were "rooting for Netanyahu to win because [his center-right ideology represents] what the Israeli political system is rebelling against and the sort of things that made Sharon break away" from the Likud.
Had Shalom, a Sephardic Jew, won the election, Peretz, also Sephardi, would have had to compete with him for the Sephardic vote, which Telhami said "is really a serious issue in Israel."
Naomi Blumenthal, a Knesset member from Likud, said Netanyahu’s victory "brings Likud back to what it was: a center-right party that will stand against the left, and Kadima is today center-left."
She said Kadima "stands on one person" and that there is "something undemocratic, unhealthy, even dangerous" in one man having such complete control.
"Whoever is obedient will be on the list [of Kadima’s Knesset candidates], and whoever is not will be thrown out," Blumenthal said.
A survey of voters released this week by the Dahaf Research Institute found that Kadima would win 39 Knesset seats (one more than last week’s survey) and that Likud would win 13 seats, up from 11 last week. Labor, the survey found, would win 21 seats, a loss of two seats from last week.
The survey was taken Monday, one day after Sharon was hospitalized.
Should Kadima win that many seats, Blumenthal said, it would mean that "one-third of the members of parliament were not democratically elected" in party elections but rather picked by Sharon.
The prime minister’s stroke also has served as a wakeup call to Israelis who see Sharon as an "irreplaceable asset, the only political figure in contemporary Israel who can take political risks and move in the direction of fixing Israel’s borders decisively," said Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University. "If he comes back to his office, this will be a reminder that they don’t have much time."
And Ezrahi pointed out that there is no one else in Kadima who has the "comparable charisma" to achieve that objective.
Telhami agreed that support for Kadima comes from Israelis who support Sharon personally and want a "strong leader who can deliver." But he said Sharon’s illness must cause Israelis to "start asking questions about his party, who is in command and who makes the decisions. This becomes far more critical when his health is in doubt."
Ezrahi said the stroke would also cause Sharon to try to "increase the credibility of Kadima" by appointing a No. 2 and No. 3 in the party.
Most analysts believe that despite his illness, Sharon is poised to be re-elected because he has properly gauged the mood of the electorate.
"For better or for worse, this guy has been involved in everything" since the birth of the State of Israel, observed Michael Oren, the author of "A History of the Six-Day War." "He is commanding a party based on his personality, his experience and his ability to affect political change.
"[Kadima] represents that solid Israeli majority that on the one hand is willing to make sacrifices for peace but is skeptical that the Palestinians can make a viable peace partner and who is willing to go forward unilaterally. As long as Kadima represents that majority it will win."
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.