What Comes Next

The Israeli political establishment’s first reactions to Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke.

Olmert gets a trial by fire after Sharon’s stroke

When someone is called a “wonderful, historic leader,” you know people are starting to move on. This is what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said about Israeli Prime Minister Sharon earlier today. When someone says, “In 48 hours we will have to choose a new leader,” you know politics is returning to normal. This is what Meir Shitrit, formerly of Likud and now part of Sharon’s new party Kadima, said when he was asked about the future leadership of the country. When Labor head Amir Peretz orders his party’s Knesset members not to make political statements, you know it’s political calculation that guides him. When Israel Katz of the Likud Party declares that Likud ministers will remain in the Cabinet “as long as needed”—it’s not because they’re needed, it’s because they see an opportunity to stay. When Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says that the “defense establishment continues to function as usual,” it means, “Don’t forget, I’m the most senior minister here.”

And there’s Ehud Olmert, the interim prime minister, struggling to learn fast, to be perceived as the heir apparent, which he might be. After the sudden death of FDR, the U.S. presidency fell to Harry Truman in an even more dramatic period—but the political timing was better. Truman, too, replaced a leader far more popular than himself, but elections were still three years off, and even so, he barely won them. Olmert has three months to be tested.

The good news for Olmert is that Sharon’s disappearance doesn’t make his rivals more appealing. Kadima will face a big test when it chooses Sharon’s heir. If it unites around Olmert—and creates the mechanism for choosing its Knesset candidates (Sharon would have chosen them individually, a system Olmert is not powerful enough to follow)—Kadima might enjoy the support of a large proportion of the public. The bad news—well, bad news is everywhere. Olmert has never been a very popular figure in Israel. He is smart but arrogant; he doesn’t like to mingle with party activists; he’s very fond of traveling abroad and smoking good cigars. He is not a military hero nor a great orator. On the national stage, he was always the adjutant, first for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and then, for the past five years, for Sharon. He’s a politician’s politician. Who knows if he can be the people’s choice?

The U.S. administration is fond of Olmert, who has conducted many hours of negotiations here on behalf of Sharon. The shift from the Sharon era to the Olmert era will be smooth—don’t be shocked if President Bush tries to help him win public support in a not terribly subtle way. But the support of his colleagues in the new party will be much more crucial. Shimon Peres is key. It would be a huge blow if Peres decided to go back to the Labor Party; if he stays and portrays Olmert as the leader Israel now needs, it will provide a huge boost and assure voters from the center and the left that they can trust Olmert to keep doing whatever Sharon had intended to do.

But Olmert will also have to carefully consider the way he approaches Kadima’s right-of-center supporters. As he is not a general, Olmert will have to establish his credentials as a tough-enough leader, as it is a common cliché in Israel that only the tough (meaning right-wingers like Begin, center-left generals like Rabin, or the ultimate combination of both, Sharon) can make concessions in peace negotiations. If right-wing voters suspect that Olmert might be a lefty, they’ll run away from him and back to Benjamin Netanyahu. If he calculates his moves wisely, Netanyahu is the most likely candidate to gain from the new political situation.