Israel’s general election is just three months away and Kadima, the party recently created by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is ahead in the opinion polls. Sharon announced he was quitting the centre-right Likud party after Labour withdrew from the ruling coalition. It was immediately clear that Likud, not Sharon, would come off worse.
Kadima was boosted by the decision of Labour veteran Shimon Peres to climb onboard. However, since many Israeli voters support Sharon whichever team he is on, Kadima is synonymous with Sharon. Jerold Steinberg, a political analyst, says: “There are no roots to this party and without Sharon it’s going to be hard to go (on) with the revolution. So if there’s greater uncertainty we don’t know where Israeli politics are going to extend.”
For many ordinary Palestinians, Sharon is the former defence minister whom Israel found indirectly but personally responsible for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. For the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, there is currently no other dialogue partner. Since coming to power in 2001, Sharon has insisted he wants a long-term agreement with the Palestinians despite ruling out detailed talks before militant attacks are halted.
Ghassan al-Khatib, the Palestinian planning minister, says: “Sharon is one of the most important leaders in the region, his presence and absence make a big difference. His illness comes at a time when the political situations in both Israel and Palestine are witnessing very significant changes that are carrying great potential.”
Ariel Sharon, once the champion of Jewish settlers, won praise at home and abroad for this year’s pullout of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip. For the US and the European Union, he is the only person with sufficient stature to follow their “road map to peace”. Sharon has promised to keep West Bank settlements in place, but, the theory goes, there may be no other Israeli politician in a position to resume serious negotiations after a five-year freeze.