This past week Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima electoral list suffered two major setbacks. Taken together, the blows present his former party - 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 former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's election as Likud leader on Monday. Netanyahu's victory cleared the way for the Likud to finally enter the general elections race. Before Netanyahu's election, Kadima had the political field to itself. If the Likud is able to unify behind Netanyahu, and if Netanyahu runs a strong and competent campaign, we are in for an extremely competitive electoral season.
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 campaign.
While a political leader's health is always an issue for his party, for Sharon and Kadima the matter is of crucial importance. 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 pit 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 holding 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 the 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.
Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.
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