After Sharon

The former Israeli ambassador to Germany talks about what Ariel Sharon's stroke means for his political party -- and for Israel-Palestine relations.

Published January 6, 2006 11:00AM (EST)

Will Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's illness throw Israel into a political crisis? The former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, says Sharon's new party will suffer without him, but that a majority of voters are likely to support centrist politicians.

Mr. Primor, what will it mean for Israel if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon doesn't recover?

Medical experts have said with near certainty that Sharon will not return. That means that Israel will have an interim prime minister -- Ehud Olmert -- who will be able to govern without difficulty until elections in March because he already enjoys a majority in parliament and he has the party's support. He will not address any political or economic questions right now -- instead everything will revolve around the campaign for parliamentary elections in March.

Will populist former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become Sharon's successor?

No, I don't believe he will. But he will certainly perform better than was expected up till now. Some of the voters who left the Likud to follow Sharon will likely return to the Likud now. But that still won't be enough for Netanyahu to gain power. Netanyahu is surrounded by the right-wing camp and I don't believe that he can afford to pursue more moderate policies. But that's what the majority of the people want.

Can Prime Minister Sharon's new party, Kadima, survive without him?

The Sharon party will certainly lose a lot of ground -- benefiting the center and Labor parties, but also to the benefit of other, smaller moderate parties. But without Sharon, the parties will resemble a Gaullist party without de Gaulle, because the people didn't want the new party -- they wanted Sharon. Nobody knew what the party stood for politically, economically and ideologically. The people just followed Sharon. Some will remain in the party despite that fact, simply because they have no alternative. They left other parties and some can't return.

So can one say that Sharon has become an integration figure for the political center?

I would not go that far. After Sharon understood that the Israeli people had changed, he also changed himself in order to stay in power. After he changed his politics and ideology -- after he, the biggest builder of settlements of all time, decided not to hang on to all the occupied territories and was willing to clear settlements, the majority of the population wanted Sharon in power. He made himself popular with the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Do you see any parallels to the situation in 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered and Netanyahu came to power?

No, none whatsoever. Back then we had a turnaround. The centrist camp was split and Netanyahu's right wing came to power under a false pretense: At the time Netanyahu said that he would push on with the peace process and do that more successfully than the Labor Party had done. I believe that this time around politics will be more moderate after the election.

What role will Labor have in the future?

I think that some of the voters who followed Sharon will return to the Labor Party. It is possible that the Labor Party will again become a reasonably large party, large enough to form a coalition with the Kadima Party.

What effect could these outcomes have on the election in the Palestinian areas?

I don't think that our elections will have a large effect on the Palestinians -- it is more likely it will be the other way around. If extremists win power in the Palestinian elections, then that will help the Israeli extremists. Palestinian terrorist attacks have always had a large effect on the Knesset elections. Nevertheless, the majority of the Israeli population is seriously striving for moderate policies -- they are not going to budge from that.

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By Anna Reimann

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