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Israel's political vacuum

Prime Minister Sharon's sudden absence leaves no major leaders in the nation's political center.

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The political turmoil created here by the prime minister's incapacitation is severely complicated by the fact that Kadima, though it drew many well-known names in Israeli politics, was a party ostensibly created for Sharon to continue leading the country as he saw fit. That was a situation a solid plurality of Israelis, according to polls, felt comfortable with.

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But "Israel is [now] expecting a generation shift in its upper echelons," commentator Aluf Ben wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Sharon was hospitalized at a time when his standing at home and abroad was at a peak, following the successful implementation of the disengagement plan.... A change in leadership will turn Israeli politics into a giant riddle...."

Without the prime minister at the helm, it was unclear who would lead Kadima into the March elections and its status as the front-runner is uncertain. Olmert,, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, were tipped as possible No. 2s in the party. But Sharon had yet to fill out the party list indicating the order of succession.

Olmert is described by many Israeli analysts as intelligent and capable. However, says Mr. Schueftan, his leadership "is not high caliber" and he is not generally liked by the Israeli public. "In 10 years, we would have had Tzipi Livni, she has the potential," but she is not yet ready to assume the reigns of the premiership, he says.

In Sharon's absence, the two stalwart Israeli parties, Labor and Likud, led by former trade union leader Amir Peretz and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu respectively, are likely to gain ground. Some analysts say that Mr. Netanyahu's previous run as prime minister gives him an advantage over Mr. Peretz, despite the fact that polls conducted before Sharon's incapacitation showed Labor winning 19 seats in the Knesset compared to Likud's 14. Kadima was projected to win 42 of 120 available seats.

Netanyahu "would have easily been the next in line, but he made so many mistakes over the last few months that he alienated almost everyone," Schueftan says.

Whether any of the four major parties will get a solid mandate to govern is doubtful. "Everything is up in the air," says Professor Hazan. "Logically, without Sharon, the package called Kadima should completely collapse.

"On the other hand, maybe people are really tired of the left and the right and the transition to something pragmatic in the middle was made emotionally by having Sharon lead the way. Maybe it can still be the focus of the next governing coalition of Israel," Hazan says.

Using Sharon's nickname at an emergency cabinet meeting he convened Thursday morning, Olmert said "Arik is not only a leader, but a close friend of all of us. This is a difficult hour and we'll face it together.

"Israel's strength will allow it to face the situation," Olmert said slowly. "We will carry on running the country and pray for good news from the hospital."

Correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed from Tel Aviv.