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Former Prime Minister Sharon looms large over Israeli elections

KIRYAT GAT, Israel—Gilad Lugassy has looked over the list of candidates in next Tuesday's Israeli election, and he knows exactly who he wants to vote for: Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister who was silenced in January by a near-fatal stroke.

"Ariel Sharon was the best," said the 25-year-old pest control manager. He runs through the list of potential successors with a dismissive tone. "Olmert is not like him. Peretz is like a clown. And Bibi we tried once before and was no good."

With the campaign drawing to a close, there's a malaise among Israeli voters as they prepare to choose Sharon's successor. Pollsters predict voter turnout will be 70 percent, a historic low for Israel.

Israel faces major issues. Ehud Olmert, the candidate of Sharon's new Kadima Party, has pledged to abandon some West Bank settlements. Likud's Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu warns of the dangers of such a move now that the Islamic militant group Hamas runs the Palestinian parliament.

But in political conversations across Israel, the name you hear most is Sharon, whose life has taken on near-mythic airs since early January when a devastating stroke ended his political career.

Everyone is judged against Sharon. No one—not Olmert, not Netanyahu, not Labor party chief Amir Peretz—measures up.

"I'm going to vote, but it's very difficult," truck company owner Avi Zano said between mouthfuls of meat in a near-empty cafeteria. "There aren't any honest people left. There was Ariel Sharon, but since he's been gone, no one can replace him."

Ever since Sharon lapsed into a coma, Israel's political dynamics have largely been frozen. Despite widespread predictions that Sharon's new political party Kadima would collapse without the prime minister, it's held its ground.

Most polls indicate that Kadima, under Olmert's leadership, will win nearly a third of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats. Sharon's former party, Likud, led by Netanyahu, and left-leaning Labor, with the largely unknown Peretz at its head, have been struggling to secure one-sixth of the seats apiece.

The results are expected to give Kadima the right to assemble a new coalition government. If the polls are accurate, it will be up to Olmert, now the deputy prime minister, to decide which parties to bring into the fold.

Last year, Sharon abandoned Likud, which he helped found, and formed Kadima after Likud's leadership failed to endorse his plan to pull all 8,500 Jewish settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip, where they lived uneasily alongside 1.3 million Palestinians.

Now, the Gaza pullout is considered a rousing success, and Olmert is promising to apply the Gaza model to the West Bank in a bid to set Israel's borders by 2010.

Even Avitan Ami, a city council member and the head of Likud in this southern Israeli town of 54,000 where Likud has long held sway, acknowledges Kadima's ascendancy.

"The public wants a change," said Ami. "It's no secret that a lot of the right has moved to the center, and as a result, we see a strengthening of Kadima."

Still, Ami is among those who believe that without Sharon to hold it together, Kadima will face the fate of other breakaway parties in Israel.

"Parties like these, by their very nature, fall apart," he said. "Within five years, this party will no longer exist."

Some political analysts believe that Kadima's likely success is due more to Sharon than to its current candidate. Nadav Eyal, writing in the newspaper Ma'ariv, recently made that point.

"The basic data of the elections have not changed," he wrote of a recent poll. "The gap between Olmert and Netanyahu and Peretz regarding suitability for prime minister has remained the same, and the main reason that those questioned give for Kadima's success is ... the fact that it was established by Ariel Sharon."

Others, however, think Kadima will live on.

"What Sharon started and Olmert continues with really appeals to the Israelis," said Uri Dromi, a director at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

Michael Gabay, Kiryat Gat's deputy mayor, was one of the first to defect from Likud to Kadima last November.

"This election is a referendum and people want peace," he said, explaining his support for Kadima. "People want to make deals with our neighbors. All parties want peace, but there aren't many parties that are actually able to bring about peace."

But while Gabay and council member Ami no longer support the same party, they have one thing in common: autographed photos of Sharon on their office walls.

"It still does something for me," Ami said, smiling at the photo. "It hurts me that he left our party. He was our father and we were his children."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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