JERUSALEM—With health on his side, Ariel Sharon was a force of nature capable of remaking Israel's political landscape again and again.
Now, clinging to life in an intensive-care unit, his political force is most likely spent.
The scramble to succeed the 77-year-old prime minister will be muted at first, out of respect for his grave condition after a massive stroke.
But when campaigning gets under way with the bare-knuckled bluster that's typical of Israel's electoral politics, the leading contenders to replace Sharon will be Benjamin Netanyahu, 56, of the Likud Party and Ehud Olmert, 60, of Kadima, the party that Sharon created late last year when he bolted Likud to escape the unyielding influence of its extreme right wing.
Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, 53, is also a contender in the early election scheduled for March 28, but analysts give his party little chance of gaining the most votes.
For the moment, under Israeli law, Olmert is serving as acting prime minister. He could hold that post for up to 100 days or until after the election. If Sharon were to die, President Moshe Katsav would have 14 days to choose an interim successor.
"Netanyahu has the inside track on winning the election and forming the government—by a narrow margin. One of the more likely outcomes is that voters who would have gone with Sharon to Kadima will be less likely to support Olmert. They will come home to Likud," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
While Netanyahu, who recently won Likud's leadership primary, is the accepted head of an established party with deep roots and a party machine, Olmert sits atop a brand-new party that could prove ephemeral without Sharon.
"Olmert is going to have a lot of problems. For the first few days people will rally around the acting prime minister. But Olmert is going to have to show that he has the right stuff, and it's going to be difficult," Steinberg said.
Among Olmert's challenges are continuing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and diplomatic choices concerning Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled later this month. Israel hasn't yet decided whether to allow Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote.
Olmert also can expect challenges for the reins of power by competing members of Kadima, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israeli statesman Shimon Peres and others touted as potential leaders of the new party.
While acknowledging that Kadima has lost its spark plug with Sharon's stroke, Israeli political analyst Reuven Hazan said the party's future wasn't necessarily bleak. It's possible the electorate "is so sick and tired of the traditional right and left in Israeli politics" that Kadima can shape itself into something viable, he said.
"A lot will depend on Sharon's medical condition. Under the rosiest scenario, he's in hospital for a week or two and when he gets out he's in a wheelchair, able to be brought around from place to place to say, `Vote for my party. I won't be leading it; I will be advising it,'" Hazan said. "That's a completely different scenario from one in which he dies ... or goes back to the farm to sit and watch the poppies grow."
In the interest of Kadima party unity, Olmert, Mofaz and Livni, who defected from Likud, and Peres, who defected from Labor, could band together and say, "We worked with (Sharon) ... we burnt political bridges with him. We know his thinking and will continue his legacy," thereby keeping Kadima's raison d'etre alive.
While Netanyahu, a former prime minister, might appear to have the inside track, no one should count out Olmert, even if Kadima starts to flag in the polls, said Uri Dromi, an analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem research center.
"Don't be misled by the immediate shrinking of Kadima," Dromi said. "Watch Ehud Olmert. He can execute power, and (voters) like that. People like to see power in action."
That's Sharon's legacy, too.
(Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-SHARON
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060105 Olmert bio
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Benjamin Netanyahu
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