The Man Who Would Succeed Sharon

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Acting prime minister Ehud Olmert sits alongside the empty chair of Ariel Sharon at Thursday's cabinet meeting

Israeli voters still want to be led by Ariel Sharon. That seemed to be the message from an opinion poll conducted Thursday afternoon, as the Prime Minister lay comatose in a Jerusalem hospital, fighting for his life after eight hours of surgery following a massive brain hemorrhage. Kadima, the party Sharon recently created in his own image, continues to poll some 40 seats in the Knesset, more than double the share of its nearest rivals in Labor and Likud. But with doctors indicating that there is only an extremely slim chance that the 77-year-old Sharon will resume his responsibilities, analysts expect that the political arithmetic will quickly alter, turning the March 28 election—once seen as a stroll for Sharon—into a wide-open race.

The strong poll numbers for Kadima a day after Sharon's collapse may reflect the shock felt by an electorate not yet digesting the departure from the political scene of a leader to whom it had looked for security, and for hope of ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Although the poll gives Kadima 40 seats, it's the man in the No. 1 spot rather than the other 39 on the party's list that they're voting for. Israeli analysts expect Kadima's share of the vote to decline in the coming weeks, and anticipate a more or less even breakdown between Kadima, Labor and Likud.

Kadima had been expected to dominate largely because of Sharon's own popularity — indeed, it achieves this level of support despite having never declared a policy or chosen an electoral list. Without its founder leading the charge, the party will be less likely to distinguish itself from a field in which voters see no strong single leader behind whom they could rally.

The man hoping to change that perception, and convince voters that he is Sharon's designated political heir, is acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Having been deputized by Sharon en route to the hospital — and being one of his closest political allies — Olmert quickly drew the Kadima leadership around himself. The former mayor of Jerusalem is also a three-decade political veteran from a family involved in Likud and its predecessor, Herut, since even before the creation of the State of Israel. Like Sharon, he is a longstanding hawk who has moved steadily towards the center, even winking at the left, over the past decade. Indeed, over the past two years, before they quit Likud to form Kadima, Olmert's role had often been to float trial balloons for his boss, articulating controversial positions on ceding territory to the Palestinians that would later be adopted by Sharon himself.

Unlike Sharon, however, Olmert has none of the stricken leader's military and security credentials to shield him from attacks from the right. And his abrasive manner has earned him many enemies on both sides of Israel's ideological divide. Today, the acting prime minister is very much a centrist within the Kadima ranks. Olmert is not a particularly popular figure in Israel, but he is very ambitious — in 1999, he ran against Sharon in a primary for the Likud nomination for prime minister. Now, he'll stake his own claim for leadership by painting himself as the custodian of Sharon's legacy, signaling that he represents stability and continuity on the path initiated by Sharon.

As acting prime minister, Olmert has the advantage of incumbency, and he'll hope to make that an effective to winning the job on March 28. He can be expected to seek symbolic opportunities to claim the role of Sharon's designated political heir, such as seeking endorsement from the prime minister's sons. Olmert also sought to demonstrate continuity on Thursday first by convening a cabinet meeting in which Sharon's chair was left vacant, and then by receiving briefings from the heads of Israel's security services and calling Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to apprise him of developments in Israel. Israelis can expect to see a lot of Olmert conferring with military chiefs in the weeks ahead, in the hope of demonstrating a firm grasp on defense matters.

But the electorate knows Olmert is no Ariel Sharon, and the question now is whether voters who were willing to break with their traditional party affiliations in order to support Sharon's new formation are ready to stay the course with a lesser leader, or retreat into their traditional political homes. It's likely that Kadima will shed support now to the traditional parties, but the outcome of an election that once looked drearily predictable is suddenly wide open.