Without Sharon, an Epic Gap

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Hadassah Hospital director Shlomo Mor-Yosef updates the press on Sharon's condition

Just when an epic victory for his ambitious plan to remake the boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians was within his grasp, Ariel Sharon has been betrayed—not by any rival or ally, but by his aging body. The Israeli prime minister suffered what officials called "a significant stroke" on Wednesday, and underwent eight hours of surgery for a cerebral hemorrage overnight. By morning his condition was described as stable but critical, and doctors planned to keep him in an induced coma for at least 24 hours. His political powers were transferred to his deputy, Ehud Olmert, and Israeli reports suggested that even if he survives the stroke, he is at great risk of being incapacitated—and would certainly struggle to convince the electorate of his continued ability to lead.

The impact of Sharon's departure from the Israeli and wider Middle Eastern political stage could be as great as that of his erstwhile nemesis, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who died in 2004—although in profoundly different ways. Israeli is a well-established democracy, after all, and will suffer nothing like the ever-deepening disarray that has plagued Palestinian politics since Arafat's death. Sharon ruled on the basis of an elected parliamentary majority, and his replacement will be chosen on the same basis. And yet it is striking how, in recent months, Sharon has managed to break the mold of Israeli politics and initiate a realignment based on politicians' abandoning traditional party loyalties and lining up behind the old general's vision. His unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the security wall he has built to secure Israel and the West Bank possessions it claims, and the expectation that a similar unilateral withdrawal would eventually occur in the West Bank as well are not part of any political party's standing program, nor of any treaty or "road map." They reflect Sharon's own vision of a peace concluded without the participation of the Palestinians, based on his long-held premise that "there is no Palestinian partner," and that Israel's best interests are served by unilaterally—and occasionally in consultation with the U.S.—resolving the problem of the occupation on its own terms. When his own Likud Party balked, he simply formed a new party, Kadima, supremely confident in his personal standing with the electorate.

Sharon has long been viewed by friend, foe and mediator as uniquely positioned to achieve a disengagement with the Palestinians, on the basis of his unrivaled credentials as a warrior, a champion of the settler movement and a politician of the most hawkish stripe. Kadima, formed only two months ago, has attracted support from both sides of the aisle, but it was always premised on the fact that Sharon himself is far more popular with the electorate than any of Israel's major political parties, and that his own vision as a custodian of Israeli security carries more support than the political manifestos of either Likud or Labor. Kadima is a one-man show, and although formal succession presents no problems, he has no obvious political heir. Olmert can take over the job of Prime Minister, and former Labor chieftain Shimon Peres can continue to stump for Sharon's vision. But neither of these men, nor any of the others who'd thrown in their lot with Arik Sharon, possesses anything remotely close to Sharon's political authority and support in an increasingly fractured Israeli electorate.

The bowing out of the old warhorse, therefore, will likely leave behind an even more confused political landscape unlikely to produce a decisive winner next time Israel votes. It remains possible that the Labor Party and the centrists and former Likudniks who lined up behind Sharon's plan could find agreement to take it forward, although without Sharon's unimpeachable credentials with much of the Likud's traditional voting base (notwithstanding the hostility of its leadership to his plan), it remains to be seen whether they could achieve the same degree of consensus among the electorate over how far Israel should go.

Instead, Sharon's expected departure will leave an epic vacuum, precisely because so much of what his government has achieved in recent years—defeating the Palestinian intifada, rolling back the Oslo Accords, and achieving U.S. consent for a once unthinkable set of unilateral actions to redraw the de facto borders between Israel and the Palestinians—carries his personal signature. In keeping with a longstanding Middle Eastern tradition, a single leader's physical collapse has left that which seemed set in stone only days ago suddenly appearing distinctly fluid.