As the family of Ariel Sharon played a recording of his grandson’s voice in an effort to wake him from a coma, members of the Kadima Party he founded selected Ehud Olmert as his successor and polls showed Kadima with an ever widening lead.
"What seems important is that Kadima hasn’t begun to deflate," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If anything, the opposite is happening."
Alterman was referring to a poll published Monday in the Israeli business publication Globes that showed Kadima with a commanding lead of 52 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
The poll, which included only those who said they were positively going to vote on March 28, found that Likud would win 21 Knesset seats and Labor 12 seats. Polls last week had shown Kadima winning as many as 44 seats.
Alterman said these results come at a time when "nobody knows what [Kadima] stands for: and that may be part of its success. People project onto Kadima what they want it to be."
But he emphasized that the election is still two months away, campaigning has not started and Kadima has yet to formulate a platform, "and we don’t know where it’s going."
"What it suggests is that what people know about Kadima (that it puts security first and would act unilaterally if necessary) is a powerful idea in Israeli politics," Alterman said.
Ami Pedahzur, a research fellow at the National Security Center at the University of Haifa and an associate professor at the University of Texas, said the poll demonstrates also that "Kadima is more than Sharon."
Although the party’s platform has yet to be formulated, he suggested that its principles as articulated by Sharon resonate with the Israeli public.
"It offers a new agenda that says there is no chance for peace in the foreseeable future and that settlements are not an asset but a burden when it comes to security for Israel," Pedahzur said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem said Sharon, 77, remained in serious but stable condition two weeks after suffering a massive stroke.
Family members reported that he blinked his eyes at the beginning of the week when his grandson’s recording was played. One report said he opened his eyes and followed movement in the room. But doctors did not witness that and its medical significance was unclear.
At a press conference Tuesday, Olmert spelled out for the first time as acting prime minister his vision of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Asked if he envisioned further unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, Olmert said only that he planned to follow the internationally backed "road map" for peace.
Likud quickly jumped on the statement, telling the Jerusalem Post that "Olmert’s avoidance of giving a clear answer on whether he would withdraw unilaterally from Judea and Samaria, after saying many times that he supported such a move, proves that he is trying to trick the public with evasive words, to hide his true intention of withdrawing to close to the 1967 lines without receiving anything in return."
At the press conference, Olmert said also that should he win the election in March, he hoped to enter into negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If the Palestinian Authority fulfilled its commitments as enumerated by the road map, Olmert said, he hoped the two sides could "reach a final-status agreement."
Among those commitments, he said, is that Abbas "fight terrorism and disarm the [terrorist] organizations."
As Olmert, 60, settled into the job of acting prime minister, a position he will hold until the election in two months, he named former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as foreign minister, pending cabinet approval late this week. She replaces Silvan Shalom, who resigned last week along with the other three Likud cabinet members at the request of Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.
Also this week, Olmert spoke in emphatic terms when he said that Israel could not permit Iran, which has vowed to destroy Israel, to develop a nuclear bomb.
"Under no circumstances, and at no point, can Israel allow anyone with these kinds of malicious designs against us to have control of weapons of destruction that can threaten our existence," he told reporters.
Asked if that meant that Israel was prepared to launch a military action to eliminate such a threat, Olmert said: "The State of Israel cannot reconcile itself to a situation in which there is a threat against us, just as, in my view, the nations of Europe and the United States cannot reconcile themselves."
On Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is "the sole existential threat facing the State of Israel." He said the vow by Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad to "wipe Israel off the map" was one that "we must take seriously."
The Sunday Times in London last week quoted Israeli army sources as saying that Israeli F-15 fighter jets equipped with high-tech weapons and smart bombs would be deployed to strike at Iran’s nuclear plants and that Israel’s two submarines would fire ballistic missiles at Iran during such an operation.
The newspaper said also that Israeli special forces were being trained to parachute into Iran and blow up its underground nuclear facilities.
Although the U.S. and Britain have not ruled out a military strike to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, diplomatic efforts were pursued this week after Iran broke U.N. seals on its nuclear enrichment facility in a renewal of its nuclear enrichment program.
Maggie Mitchell, a senior adviser at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that although Sharon with his military credentials "could have decided to wait on Iran and no one would have worried that he did not have the cojones" to launch an attack if necessary, she is concerned about his possible successors.
"None of the [other] leaders have his military credentials," she said. "I am worried that whoever is elected, he is going to have to look tough. And in the process of bringing security to Israel, he will try to be tougher than Sharon."
Mitchell said that might also be true of Sharonís successor when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians. She said another Palestinian terrorist attack will occur but that Israel must "not give the terrorists the upper hand."
"Don’t turn the peace process over to the terrorists," she said. "As long as you don’t do that, you will win over the other [Palestinians]."
This week also saw the Labor Party select its candidates for the Knesset. Pedahzur said he believes Amir Peretz, the party leader, erred in "pushing away" Shimon Peres and former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He said Peres is viewed as a "statesman" in Israel and would have been a real plus had he remained in the party, and that Barak, a former general, has the "image of a fighter" who would have bolstered the party on security matters.
"But now he is stuck with a single issue platform [socioeconomics]," Pedahzur said, "and this is not the thing that Israelis are preoccupied by."