This past week Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima electoral list suffered
two major setbacks. Taken together the blows present the Likud with its
first realistic chance to make a significant dent in public support for
Kadima and to move much of that support to the Likud.
The first blow came with MK Binyamin Netanyahu's election as Likud leader on
Monday. Netanyahu's victory cleared the way for Likud to finally enter the
general elections race. Before his election, Kadima had the political field
to itself. If Likud is able to unify behind Netanyahu, and if Netanyahu runs
a strong and competent campaign, we are in for an extremely competitive
The second hit was, of course, the mild stroke that Sharon suffered, which
landed him in the hospital on Sunday evening. Sharon's health problems,
which his stroke and subsequent hospitalization brought dramatically to the
public's attention, dealt a serious blow to Kadima because now the issue of
Sharon's medical condition will likely become a central issue in the
While a political leader's health is always an issue for his party, for
Sharon and Kadima the matter is crucial. This is so because in point of
fact, Kadima is not a political party at all. It is merely a list of
unpopular politicians who stand behind the enormously popular Ariel Sharon.
The results of the Likud primaries place the two Titans of Israeli politics
against one another for the third time in five years. Indeed, it can be said
that the competition between Netanyahu and Sharon has been the only real
political contest in Israel since the downfall of Ehud Barak's government
with the start of the Palestinian terror war in September 2000. Sharon won
the first two rounds in 2000 and 2002.
By conspiring with Shimon Peres in 2000 to prevent the conduct of general
elections, Sharon effectively barred Netanyahu from running for office
thus paving his own path to succeed Barak while preventing the collapse of
the political Left at the polls.
In November 2002, by padding Likud's voter rolls with kibbutz members and
refugees from the South Lebanon Army, and with the support of the Council of
Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, Sharon defeated Netanyahu in
the Likud primaries. Although he had the advantage of incumbency, Sharon's
victory was still remarkable in light of the fact that the party's rank and
file supported him even though he had already abandoned the party platform
by publicly supporting Palestinian statehood.
According to the polls, Likud has absolutely no chance of winning the
elections. And yet, to discern the Likud's real position as it enters the
general elections race, we must ask a pivotal question: What is the basis
for the wide public support for Kadima - a party that places among its
leaders such despised political figures as Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Haim
Ramon and Dalia Itzik?
Kadima has two main sources of public support. First, with his strongman
image, Sharon has convinced wide swathes of the public that he and he alone
can ensure the security of Israel's citizenry. In so convincing the
populace, Sharon has divested the Likud of its greatest asset: its
reputation for being the political party best equipped to secure Israel's
The second reason that Kadima is polling so well is Sharon himself. Sharon's
many supporters, who are currently giving Kadima between 32-42 Knesset seats
in opinion polls are undaunted by the criminal investigations surrounding
Sharon and his sons. They couldn't care less that his strong-armed political
tactics make a mockery of Israel's democratic processes.
Sharon's supporters are moved by the sense that Sharon can get things done.
Sharon said that by the end of 2005 there wouldn't be one Jew left in Gaza
and by golly, there isn't one Jew in Gaza today. Obviously Sharon's
supporters do not care about the Israelis living in Judea and Samaria
tens of thousands of whom will likely be expelled if Sharon is reelected.
His supporters are non-ideological voters who simply trust Sharon's image as
an accomplished leader who grabs the reins of power and rides on. For these
voters, the status of Sharon's health is likely to be of critical
During his hospitalization, Sharon's aides fed the public a steady diet of
announcements of phone calls to his room at Hadassah Medical Center from US
President George W. Bush and other world leaders, all wishing Sharon well.
To a degree, this spin, which emphasized Sharon's international popularity
while making light of his serious medical problem, is very much in line with
Sharon's governing philosophy as it relates to Israel's international and
Since he entered office, Sharon and his advisors have portrayed the status
of Israel's relations with the US as one of unprecedented harmony. On a
superficial level, this is in fact the case. But this surface tranquility
masks its problematic cause. The appearance of smooth sailing in Israel's
relations with Washington is the result of the unprecedented weakness of
Israel's position in Washington.
This week Ma'ariv reported that IDF commanders are becoming increasingly
disturbed by the Bush administration's meddling in the minutiae of the
operation of Israel's passages with Gaza. The State Department consistently
brushes off Israel's growing security concerns and intervenes on the
Palestinians' behalf. This American interference not only constitutes a
political blow to Israel's sovereignty, it also manifests a military blow to
Israel's national security.
But there is nothing new here. Since taking office five years ago, Sharon
has received Washington's support such as it is by abandoning Israel's
national interests every time that they are challenged by the
institutionally anti-Israel State Department. In every single dispute that
has arisen over the past five years - from the Mitchell Report in 2001 to
the Road Map in 2003 to the passages agreement Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice rammed down our throats last month - Sharon has abandoned
Israel's national security interests at every turn in exchange for public
declarations of support for him personally by central figures in the Bush
Sharon has succeeded in the domestic political arena by presenting the
support he has received on a personal level to the public as if it were a
national achievement. Israelis have been duped into believing that the trust
Sharon demands of them has actually conferred some advantage on the nation
when if fact, Israel has never been weaker than it has become under his
And as with the Americans so too with the Palestinians. Sharon's success in
basing his political fortunes on consolidating his image as a strongman has
made it impossible for anyone to impugn his withdrawal from Gaza in spite of
the fact that it has been a colossal disaster for Israel's national
security. The Kassam missiles that now fall on Ashkelon meet with what can
effectively be considered no Israeli response. The seeding of Al Qaida cells
in Gaza has been strenuously ignored. And the Hamas takeover of key
Palestinian institutions has been greeted by yawns all around.
Public sentiment, which Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been
instrumental in directing, is marked by defeatism. As recently noted by
Daniel Pipes, in a speech before the leftist Israel Policy Forum in New York
last June, Olmert described the sentiment of the Israeli public thus: "We
are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of
winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."
The thinking behind this stunning statement and the public malaise it
describes apparently is based on the view that since Sharon is a strongman
and he's preaching surrender, it goes without saying that the public ought
to behave in a cowardly and defeatist manner. This psychology goes a long
way towards explaining the results of a Truman Center poll published this
week which found that a majority of Israelis support negotiating with Hamas.
Again, it should be emphasized that defeatism as a national strategy has
worked for Sharon to date because the public trusts him.
In its election campaign, the Likud must focus its attacks on exposing the
image of strength that Sharon and his political advisors have sold the
public for the lie it is. For the sad truth is that during Sharon's tenure
Israel's international standing has sunk to previously unknown depths. From
a tactical threat at the beginning of Sharon's premiership, in the aftermath
of the withdrawal from Gaza, Palestinian terror has morphed into an
existential challenge for Israel.
As well, the Likud must make Sharon's health a central issue in these
elections. From the contradictory reports on the cause and consequences of
his mild stroke this week, it is impossible to know what his health status
actually is. But it is obviously far from satisfactory. The doctors at
Hadassah claimed that his stroke did not increase the likelihood that Sharon
will suffer from future strokes. But according to New York-based
neurosurgeon Dr. David Poulad, "this is simply untrue." The fact of the
matter is that Sharon's stroke indicates that there is a problem with his
blood flow and such a problem constitutes a serious medical condition.
According to a number of reports, Sharon's stroke was caused by a blood clot
in his heart. If this is correct it indicates that Sharon suffers from an
irregular heartbeat. Again, according to Dr. Poulad, "Sharon's apparent
heart condition increases the risk of future strokes as well as a host of
other problems. If his heartbeat is irregular then he can suffer from blood
clots anywhere in his body. The anti-coagulant medications that he was
placed on during his hospitalization can themselves cause a whole host of
additional problems, such as hemorrhaging." People who have suffered mild
strokes and are medicated with anti-coagulants do not generally have long or
healthy life expectancies, Dr. Poulad concludes.
Given that Dr. Poulad himself can only draw his conclusions from the
fragmentary information made available to the public this week, he cautions
that his views may very well be alarmist.
And yet, since Sharon is basing his entire campaign - as he has his entire
tenure in office - on the public's faith in him personally, the public must
be provided with a clear understanding of how long he can be expected to
continue functioning at his current level. The Likud must demand that Sharon's
medical records be made public immediately.
In recasting the political map around his own personality, Sharon has
demonstrated a level of political artistry the likes of which Israel has
never seen before. There can be no doubt that he is a most formidable
political foe. But he is not invincible.
If the Likud builds its political campaign on a two-pronged strategy of
demonstrating the emptiness and failure of Sharon's strategic moves and
underscoring Sharon's health problems while positioning itself just to the
right of the center of Israel's political spectrum the Likud will succeed
in hitting Sharon at his weak points while building on its own strengths.
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