Test of a Lifetime

As the Prime Minister fights for his life, the feeling is that even without him, Kadima will not crumble. Its rivals may call it a 'one-man party,' but it?s no more a one-man party than Peretz's Labor or Netanyahu's Likud.

Haaretz Writers: Perspectives on Sharon

It won't be long before madmen spring up like poisonous mushrooms and say that this is the punishment of the man who uprooted Jews from their land. They will be followed by all the foamers at the mouth and weavers of conspiracy theories who will reveal who, in the top echelon of Israel's leadership, wanted to be rid of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who delayed his transfer to the hospital, who decided to postpone the cardiac catheterization by two weeks. There will be no lack of hallucinatory and carefully reasoned theories. It is Sharon who will be missing.

In the middle of the week, after he was informed that the Likud ministers were postponing their resignation from the government until this coming Monday, the Sharonic sarcasm flashed. What is this postponement for, he asked his advisers. Do you think they're expecting something?

This "something," which was hovering in the air as a theoretical possibility that no one took seriously, made Sharon restless. As the catheterization got closer, he became more irritable, disturbed and even short-tempered. If they drop missiles on him, said one long-time acquaintance, if affairs are uncovered, if some other kind of catastrophe occurs, he will not lose his equanimity or his good judgment for a moment.

But this relatively simple surgery he was supposed to have undergone yesterday at noon really drove him crazy. He was a different Sharon, and this says something about the man's character: During all his days in the army and afterward in politics and as a statesman, he always took into account the worst-case scenario, and prepared for it. When he had to deal with a political crisis, he related to the worst, most catastrophic possibility as reasonable. This is how he managed to survive in politics for so many years. He had two principles that he drummed into young advisers: "Stay at the wheel" - always hang around, even when you are shunned and scorned, even when no one joins your table at the restaurant. And the second principle: "Everything you are capable of doing to your rivals, they will do to you, therefore do it first."

This worked very well in politics and on the battlefield. But what can you do when your rival is not a politician or an Egyptian division commander, but rather a deadly blood clot that is making its way to your brain? What strategy do you use against this "dog," this "insect," as Sharon sometimes used to call his rivals.

These lines are being written on Thursday afternoon. As the hours go by, there is more time to get accustomed to the thought that the Sharon era has ended. That the leader from birth, this courageous and controversial man who in his public life won admiration and esteem as well as hatred and loathing, will not return. Sharon has completed his historic role - a few years too soon. The Israeli public that was prepared to forgive him and to turn a blind eye to the corruption affairs that have stained him in recent years intended to give him another term, four more years in power.

Nothing except what happened on Wednesday night could have prevented this. Sharon was considered not only a bulldozer, but also a rock. There is an inherent conflict between the two, but in him it all worked out. He really believed that he would live to be 90-plus - like his aunt and grandmother, and all those other venerable relatives of his whom he would mention to interviewers who wondered about the state of his health.

The hopes that were pinned on him were great. The feeling among large parts of the public was that the "old man" would not have quit the Likud and set out in the twilight of his days on a political adventure like this if he had not had far-reaching intentions.

Now, the crazy, fascinating election race that has been going on here during the past two months ever since MK Amir Peretz was elected chairman of the Labor Party, is in effect starting all over again. All the basic questions that seemed to have been resolved have been reopened: Will the elections be postponed? Who will head Kadima, Sharon's party? What are the chances that the chosen heir will replicate Sharon's success in making Kadima the leading party, the ruling party for certain? What will happen to all those people who resigned, from MK Shimon Peres to Tzachi Hanegbi, who left their political homes only for the sake of Sharon? Yesterday afternoon these questions remained unanswered. It was only possible to try to address them tentatively, and with uncertainty.

The sidekickDeputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stepped into Sharon's shoes on Wednesday night. Sharon?s endless jokes about the "deputy law" and his barbs at Olmert's expense came true. Now the acting prime minister, Olmert, in the nature of things, is considered the leading candidate to replace Sharon as head of Kadima. He has the qualifications. He has leadership ability and experience in politics, statesmanship and defense(in his capacity as deputy during the past three years, he has been exposed to events and information usually reserved only for prime ministers and defense ministers).

What doesn't Olmert have? He does not have what Sharon had in abundance. He is not loved, he is not liked. In focus groups that were held in recent weeks in Kadima, the participants were asked to define their feelings toward a number of leading figures in politics. Sharon, Shimon Peres and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were ranked at the top of the list as "admired" and also as "liked." Olmert was defined as "admired," but not as "liked." In surveys conducted after Sharon's previous hospitalization, Peres and Livni were ranked by Kadima voters at the top of the list of preferred candidates to replace Sharon, should he not be able to head the list.

For Olmert, taking up the role of prime minister under these circumstances, with the situation in Gaza on the verge of blowing up and the northern border on the verge of boiling over, and on the eve of fateful elections in the Palestinian Authority, is dramatic to an almost Shakespearean extent. One commentator on the CNN network yesterday defined the position of prime minister of Israel as one of the most difficult and challenging jobs in the world. Yesterday, this job was taken up by a person who has never truly been on the threshold of the premiership.

Olmert has always been a sidekick. In the wings. He was around former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir for many years. Then he took time out from national affairs for about nine years, during which he served as mayor of Jerusalem and spent a great deal of time abroad. People of his age group, members of his cohort in politics, MK Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, passed him by in the race to the premiership. Olmert has never seen himself as less talented than them - on the contrary. He scorns Netanyahu. He very much admires some of Barak's capabilities. In these grim circumstances, with the position falling into his lap the way it has, the results in the next three months will be his test. The test of his life.

On the assumption that Olmert is the person who will be chosen to head Kadima, he will need serious reinforcements at his side. According to one of the scenarios of the political scene that were sketched yesterday, Olmert might call on two of his friends, Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, and put them in the top five on the Kadima list. Together with him, Peres and Livni, this could be a winning quintet. With respect to statesmanship, security and constitutional morality, no other party has anything like this. At one stage, Barak and Meridor were candidates for joining Kadima.

Not long ago, when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was still in the Likud, Sharon's advisers looked into the possibility of bringing in Barak and announcing that he was Sharon's candidate for defense minister. This idea was dropped after surveys showed that Barak contributed nothing to Sharon. But without Sharon, without the ultimate "Mr. Security," this picture could change.

"Our Shimon"Shimon Peres is a key figure in the new political reality that began to take shape here Wednesday night. "Our Shimon," as Sharon used to call him, is a very valuable asset - both for Kadima and for the Labor Party, which he abandoned, angry and insulted, after he lost in the primaries a few weeks ago. In his resignation announcement, Peres said that he had decided to join Sharon because he was the only person capable of leading a peace coalition. Now, with Sharon no longer in the picture, this is Amir Peretz's opportunity to rectify his big mistake, which cost him and estimated five or six Knesset seats, and try to bring Peres back home.

A senior source in the Labor Party said yesterday that if it were up to him, he would invite Peres and Barak and reserve the second and third places on the Labor list for the two former prime ministers. Let's just see who would object, said the source. The question is whether Peretz is capable of this. The question is also whether Peres and Barak would agree.

And another question: Can Peres even be a Knesset member on behalf of Kadima in the 17th Knesset? The circumstances of his resignation and that of MKs Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik from Labor have not yet stood the legal test. There is more than one legal expert who says that since the three did not resign from the Knesset "concurrent with their departure" as the law requires, and as Tzachi Hanegbi did, they will not be able to serve in the next Knesset on behalf of Kadima. This matter still requires examination and it could even make it to the High Court of Justice, but even if Peres will not be able to be a member of the next Knesset, this will still not prevent either Olmert or Peretz from declaring him a candidate for a senior ministerial position in their governments.

New opportunitiesThe new situation that has emerged also affords new opportunities for Benjamin Netanyahu. He, too, must take advantage of the consternation and uncertainty for making a dramatic move that will position him as a realistic candidate for prime minister. This could be a call to some of those who have resigned from the Likud - Hanegbi, Livni, Mofaz and Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit - to come home, with a promise to reserve places for them at the top of the party list. None of them will return to the arena of the Likud Central Committee, which is supposed to choose its Knesset list next Thursday. Theoretically, anything is possible, but it is hard to see any of them answering Netanyahu's call, if there is one. The schism there is too big, and it appears that Kadima cannot be turned back.

Yesterday around noon, at the height of the consternation and uncertainty, the feeling in political circles was that Kadima would not crumble even after Sharon. It is true that its rivals liked to call it a "one-man party," but it is no more a one-man party than Labor headed by Peretz or the Likud headed by Netanyahu. In Kadima there are quite a number of talented, experienced and worthy people. Some of them went there for reasons of convenience. What is lacking there now, without Sharon, is the glue that exists in other parties: functioning institutions, a tradition, roots, activists and branches. If, in the coming weeks, the formula is found that will provide a suitable substitute for all of these, and if the polls do not show collapse and crumbling and a panicked flight of voters - this party could survive and put up a fight in the elections for the Knesset.

It would be good if it survived, if only as a gesture, a kind of monument, a fitting memorial to its founder.