Israel is facing a political realignment that could reverberate through the entire Middle East for years to come. The health crisis that has removed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the political scene has created a political vacuum that Israelis compare to the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
It comes less than three months before national elections, which Mr. Sharon's new centrist party was expected to dominate. The duties of Israel's prime minister were quickly assumed by Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, but the political absence of Sharon is casting doubt about the viability of the party he founded as well as any movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"The problem is that there is nobody in any party who has the stature to step into his shoes," says Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute here.
Running under the banner of his Kadima party, Sharon, who fought in or directed every one of Israel's wars since the country's birth in 1948, was expected to easily win a third term as prime minister in the March 28 elections.
With the retirement of longtime Labor leader Shimon Peres in November, Sharon was the last of Israel's original generation of leaders active in politics and the only man the majority of Israelis trusted to run the country, which many here view as in a perpetual fight for its existence.
Since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in August, Sharon had ridden a wave of popularity here which allowed him to throw off the allies-turned-foes in his former Likud party. If given another term as prime minister, Sharon declared in November when he created Kadima, he would seek to "determine the final borders of the state" of Israel.
With Israeli settlers out of Gaza and the continued construction of the separation barrier running through parts of the West Bank, those final contours were beginning to take shape. As his last stamp on the land he has exerted extraordinary influence over during the course of his life, Sharon was expected, either by negotiation with the Palestinians or through further unilateral steps, to see that plan through to fruition.
"If Sharon would have stayed, then a government headed by him making further disengagements in the next year or two was a good likelihood," says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "As of now, that is off the political agenda. There is nobody around who can move the country quickly to make hurtful concessions if it's not him."
Ghazi al Saadi, a Palestinian commentator, agreed with that assessment, saying Sharon was "the first Israeli leader who stopped claiming Israel had a right to all of the Palestinians' land."
"A live Sharon is better for the Palestinians now, despite all the crimes he has committed against us," Mr. Saadi said on the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV network.
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on how Palestinians living in Jerusalem would vote in the upcoming Palestinian elections were set to begin Thursday with mediation by US officials. Those talks were postponed. "We hope that [Sharon's illness] will not affect what we had expected of the Israelis," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters. If [Acting Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert puts off a decision on Jerusalem, "it means the Palestinian election is going down," meaning it will be postponed. The elections are scheduled for Jan. 25.
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.
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.