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Political Upheaval in Israel Signals Historic Change


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent illness, described as a mild stroke, shocked many Israelis who had come to view him as seemingly invincible to personal tragedy, public scandal and political trends. With Mr. Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip this year, and his bold gamble to call early elections and leave his ruling Likud Party, Ariel Sharon emerged in 2005 as a historic figure in his nation.

Opinion polls indicate Mr. Sharon emerged from his medical emergency more popular than ever. Polls show that his newly formed "Kadima" party could win an overwhelming victory when Israelis vote on March 28.

Mr. Sharon's doctors say he suffered no damage from his stroke. They recommended he go on a diet and get some rest, something few Israelis believe he will do, accustomed to seeing their prime minister as a larger-than-life figure who consistently outworks and out eats those around him. Danny Rubenstein, a columnist for the Ha'aretz newspaper says Mr. Sharon does have an advantage over politicians in other countries who suffer health problems.

"In Israel it is not considered legitimate to go into details into the privacy of our leaders," he explained. "We do not usually deal with their private lives, sometimes with money, but not with their families and not with their health or their physical condition."

If Mr. Sharon manages to avoid further health problems he stands a good chance of winning a third term as prime minister and getting the mandate he has said he publicly wants, to draw Israel's final border with Palestinians. Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University says there is no question, that Mr. Sharon is determined to achieve his goal.

"I think Sharon is determined to be the person that sets the final borders of the state of Israel, and if he has to do that unilaterally, well I think he will try and do it through negotiations, but if he has to do it unilaterally, I think he will make an effort at that," he noted.

Ariel Sharon opened a new era in Israeli politics in November when he walked away from the Likud Party, which he helped to establish 30 years ago. The move followed Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip which was widely supported by a majority of Israelis, but for which Mr. Sharon was harshly criticized for within Likud.

In his breakaway speech from the Likud Party Mr. Sharon said the new party he was forming would follow the internationally-backed "Roadmap" peace plan, and that he did not envision unilateral Israeli pull backs in the West Bank. Since then he has been joined by several leading members of both the Likud and Labor Parties, most notably former Labor party leader and Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Mr. Sharon's political gamble was also welcomed by many Palestinians such as Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israeli officials.

"I believe it is an eruption of a political volcano in Israel," said Mr. Erekat. "I believe it is a restructuring of politics in Israel. I do not think this is happening because of economic or social or religious or educational programs. It is happening because of us, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I have not seen anything more significant in Israel since 1967."

Other Palestinians such as Mahmoud Labadi, the Director General of the Palestinian Legislative Council voiced caution, saying there are concerns about what just Mr. Sharon means when he talks about Israel's border with Palestinians.

"Our concern is that he wants to enlarge the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians," he said. "He wants to continue building settlements and he wants to continue building the wall. He wants to build settlements and continue his policies of aggression and occupation against the Palestinian people. That is the final border. He will not stick to the 1967 border and that means he will annex more Palestinian territory."

Opinion surveys over the years have consistently shown that a majority of Israelis trust Ariel Sharon on security issues. Edward Kaufman, the retired head of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Jerusalem's Hebrew University says with the formation of his broad-based centrist political party, Ariel Sharon has now also become widely popular with a majority of voters.

"What I can recall is [that centrist parties] the idea of a center party to be very popular when things are polarized," he said. "Sharon is now opting for a centrist position between Labor and the more hard-line Likud people and that makes him very popular. But also I think that he is seen by the [Israeli people] public to be credible."

Opinion polls show Ariel Sharon with a wide lead over his two main challengers, newly elected Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, and newly elected Likud Party leader and former Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu with three months to go before Israelis vote.

Surveys show that most Israelis believe Ariel Sharon is the only politician with the credibility to achieve a permanent peace agreement with Palestinians. That is why when he was rushed to the hospital after suffering his mild stroke, Israelis held their collective breath, with many wondering if Mr. Sharon's legacy would end before it could be completed.

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