On the eve of his hospitalization, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon planned to spend this week ranking the candidates in the Kadima list for the 17th Knesset. According to the advice of his strategists, Sharon wished to publish the list of candidates at the end of this week, or the beginning of next week, at the very latest - as close as possible to the date of the Likud Central Committee's internal elections. Sharon and his aides assumed that the crystallization of Likud's list this Thursday, and that of Labor's next Tuesday, would strengthen those two parties in the public opinion polls, and Sharon did not want Kadima to lag behind.

It is hard to see how Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is coping with this task. Sharon was a demigod in Kadima. No one would have dared to question his decisions. Olmert is not a demigod. He is not even a deputy demigod. From his point of view, the list's line-up is practically an existential matter: He must not anger a single senior Kadima official, and he has to assemble a strong, impressive, balanced and cohesive list with all of the right components, like a good pot of stew; a list that will have that extra something that Sharon did not need at all.

Sharon's forced departure from the arena changed the balance of power between Kadima, Likud and Labor. As long as Sharon was in the picture, he dictated the character of the face-off and made it personal, between his two rivals - Benjamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz - and him. They had no chance against him. A giant facing dwarves. For this reason, Netanyahu and Peretz were eagerly awaiting the consolidation of their own party lists for backing. Peretz wished to surround himself with Ashkenazi (of European descent) Laborites:Isaac Herzog, Ofir Pines-Paz, Matan Vilnai, Prof. Avishay Braverman, Ami Ayalon, et al. Netanyahu was hoping that the top ten standing by Silvan Shalom and him would include the rational faces of the Likud. Netanyahu and his advisors intended to emphasize his list and the Hebrew letters forming Likud's ballot acronym, Mahal, just as Peretz is focusing voter awareness on Labor's slogan "Labor - because the time has come."

Overnight, Sharon's illness turned Netanyahu into the most seasoned candidate of the three. Peretz's lack of experience already seems less problematic, and Olmert is waiting for his list, whose composition and ranking he will determine.

Five kinds of pastries, coffee, tea, soft drinks, snack foods and bottles of red and white wine awaited members of the Likud Central Committee who had come to honor Likud list candidate, Knesset member Gideon Saar last Sunday. Saar was holding a final rally at Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan. At that very hour in Ashdod, MK Daniel Benlulu was holding his own rally. Benlulu served a full three-course dinner to 400 Central Committee members.

The rules for such events are well known: The host, who spends tens of thousands of shekels, addresses attendees while dozens of other candidates rush hither and thither around the hall, going from one table to the next, escorted by small entourages, recruiting support for themselves. At such events, the host must compliment each and every one of those hitching a ride at his expense, praise and glorify him, to gain one more moment of his attention and that of his escorts. The more insignificant the subject of the compliment, from a political point of view, the greater and more pompous and flowery are the praises heaped upon him.

In most of the polls, Saar is ranked in the first or second place on the list. He is essentially contending for a cabinet position in the next government. Benlulu, on the other hand, is fighting for his political existence. He and another 13 MKs and three former MKs (Natan Sharansky, Zalman Shoval and David Mena), plus Mayor Eli Moyal of Sderot are competing for six slots. 18 for 6. Even if Shoval, Mena and Moyal are not chosen, there is no escaping the conclusion that 9 Likud MKs, almost all of whom are among the "hard" rebels who embittered Sharon's life until he got up and left, will find themselves without seats in the 17th Knesset.

Some see this as poetic justice, while others view it as cruel fate, but all agree on one point: They brought this upon themselves. Ayoub Kara, Yehiel Hazan and Michael Ratzon, Ehud Yatom, Naomi Blumenthal and Leah Ness, David Levy, Gila Gamliel and Michael Gorlovsky, Yuli Edelstein and Sharansky. They are all wavering on the brink.

Everyone wants to be in the first five slots behind Netanyahu and Shalom, because these hold the promise of cabinet positions: Saar, Reuven Rivlin and Yisrael Katz, Limor Livnat, Danny Naveh and Gilad Ardan, Michael Eitan, Yuval Steinitz, Uzi Landau and Moshe Kahlon. They are considered the safe candidates from the perspective of the chances to get into the next Knesset, but, according to current surveys, only four or five of them will get to be ministers. The others will be battling for slots 13 through 18 on the national list (after which the regional representatives are listed).

Unfortunately for them, Netanyahu is giving them the cold shoulder. After he left the government, they left Landau, who had been leading them, and lined up behind Netanyahu. They sat behind him at the daring press conference at Beit Sokolov. But Netanyahu is not interested in them, at least not most of them. He knows that rebelliousness is a character trait, and rebels remain rebels, and only those who are rebelled against change.

Dissolution of unity

Back when they were strong, the 13 or 14 rebels clung to one another, in the belief that their strength was in their unity. If we do not dismantle or split in our struggle against Sharon, they thought then, the Central Committee will reward us collectively and Sharon's supporters will be pushed off the list. Today Sharon's supporters in Kadima and the diluted Central Committee are not with them. They are fighting one another.

It would be interesting to see the ballot form of, say, David Levy. How many names of rebels will he include in his group of 15 choices? Or Gorlovsky. The parliamentarian who began his career as Avigdor Lieberman's assistant and chauffeur, and who will be remembered as one of the perpetrators of the double votes (along with Hazan), sent letters last week to 3,000 Central Committee members.

"My years as a Knesset member have not been easy," he writes. "On the personal level I am being harshly assaulted by the media and the legal system, by forces bent on ousting me from political life. The reasons for this stem from my being a Likudnik and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. Persecution is nothing new to me. It began back in the 1980s, with attempts to thwart my efforts to immigrate to Israel, and unfortunately continues to this day. I am persecuted here in my home. What can I do? My name isn't Barak or Poraz."