A Christmas Day cabinet meeting last month began like every other get together.
But it had only been a week since Sharon was treated for a minor stroke.
This time, however, it seems a return for the prime minister is most unlikely – leaving the country lurching towards political uncertainty. A year ago, Sharon lived up to his reputation as a political heavyweight when he pushed his Gaza pullout plan through parliament. Having occupied the territory for 38-years, his plan sent shockwaves across Israel.
Accustomed to stinging criticism, Sharon survived the worst of the storm. However, his Likud party did not escape unharmed. The end game began in earnest when Sharon took an even bigger risk by seeking parliament’s dissolution to call for an election. A few hours after getting the President’s approval, Sharon announced his departure from Likud and the creation of Kadima, a centrist party.
The new group got off to a dream start. Kadima took an early lead in opinion polls, buoyed by Sharon’s enormous popularity as well as his reputation for fulfilling his promises. Some polls predicted it would take a third of seats in parliament. For many Israelis, the party’s very existence was evidence of Sharon’s success in convincing others that Israel needs to compromise on some of its most sacred principles. Sharon never named a successor so his disappearance leaves Kadima in search of a new leader.
His deputy, Ehud Olmert, is the front-runner. But he is expected to face a strong challenge from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz. It is thought former premier, Shimon Peres, may also fancy his chances. But doubts remain over all of their power bases and their ability to forge new alliances, making it unclear whether Kadima can survive. If Israel does not maintain its shift towards the political centre-ground the biggest winners come election time may be those at the extreme of Israeli politics.