A massive stroke has felled Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Recovery is uncertain, and most observers believe his political career is over regardless. The loss will be felt not only by Israel but also by Palestinians and the world. For all his shortcomings, Mr. Sharon has been a leader with a vision, capable of making — and sticking with — unpopular decisions. It is precisely that characteristic that is most needed in the Middle East today. It is, sadly, in ever shrinking supply.
Mr. Sharon suffered a minor stroke in late December. A small hole in his heart allowed a blood clot to travel from the heart and briefly block the flow of blood to part of the brain. It quickly dissolved and left no permanent damage. The prime minister resisted the release of his medical records, insisting that he was in good health. Doctors gave him anti-blood-clotting injections to prepare for surgery, scheduled for this month, to repair the hole in his heart.
That treatment may have helped cause the massive stroke that felled Mr. Sharon last week when he collapsed at his farm. Three rounds of emergency surgery left the prime minister in a medically induced coma, but it is unclear if he would emerge from the coma and what condition he would be in if he did.
The stroke removes the single most important actor in Israeli politics. In recent months, Mr. Sharon had bolted from the conservative Likud Party that he founded and established a new party, Kadima. The move reflected the prime minister’s growing frustration with the rightwing of Likud, which had opposed his unilateral withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlements from the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the elevation of Mr. Amir Peretz, a leftist, to head the Labor Party, and Mr. Peretz’s decision to withdraw Labor from the ruling coalition, shifted the balance of power within the government itself.
Sensing that the center was now empty, Mr. Sharon rushed to fill the void by forming Kadima, along with moderates of both parties. The gamble was a success: Recent opinion polls show Kadima leading all other parties in the national elections scheduled for March 28. Mr. Sharon’s stroke is a blow to its prospects, but even polls taken after his illness show it in front. One had Kadima winning 39 of 120 Parliament seats under acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — a few seats less than it polled under Sharon but still more than twice as many as the next party, and more than enough to lead the next government.
That strong showing could be a result of sympathy for Mr. Sharon. Mr. Olmert is not the politician Mr. Sharon is — no one is — and may not be able to sustain support during a tough campaign. He is not inexperienced, though. Mr. Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, has had a long political career. Still, he is vulnerable from both the right and left. Like Mr. Sharon, he has moved to the center in recent years, raising questions about his commitment to a durable peace. At the same time, he does not have the prime minister’s military and security credentials. So he is vulnerable to charges of opportunism.
Israelis will look for continuity from whoever succeeds Mr. Sharon. The leadership in Kadima understands that and has vowed to continue Mr. Sharon’s policies. The real question is whether anybody can.
Only an Israeli leader with Mr. Sharon’s security credentials has the credibility to make the retreat he did from Gaza. A similar personal history shielded former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, until he was struck down by an assassin. No one else shares that legacy. Moreover, steps toward peace require a Palestinian counterpart who can deliver the security that is the precondition for Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Mr. Sharon’s record — and his unwavering certainty — compensated for the weakness of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. Mr. Sharon’s absence will demand that Palestinian leaders reassert themselves as credible partners in peace. Thus far that has not been possible.
While Israel will remain focused on its internal politics, there will be intense scrutiny of the Palestinian election scheduled for Jan. 25. If the leadership that emerges is as weak and corrupt as the current one, Israelis are likely to lean further to the right. A rejuvenated Palestinian leadership that is dominated by Hamas will be equally unnerving. Recent elections in the Palestinian territories were dominated by the hardline group precisely because Palestinians saw a possible way to end the incompetence and corruption that condemns them to poverty and desperation.
The tremendous uncertainty that now dominates both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian equation virtually guarantees paralysis. It will take genuine leadership from both communities to move the peace process forward. There is little grounds for optimism.
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