IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A political earthquake in Israel

After major surgery following a stroke on Wednesday evening, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in a grave condition in a Jerusalem hospital, and the future of Israeli politics is up in the air.  NBC News’ Martin Fletcher reports from Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon takes part in a special session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 2004.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon takes part in a special session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 2004.Lefteris Pitarakis / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

JERUSALEM – After major surgery following a stroke on Wednesday evening, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in grave condition in a Jerusalem hospital, and the future of Israeli politics is up in the air.

NBC News’ Martin Fletcher reports from outside the Hadassah Hospital on what effect his condition will have on the Israeli political landscape, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and U.S.- Israeli ties.  

After the massive stroke and the lengthy surgery, medical experts have said the chances are slim that Sharon will make a full recovery. His deputy, former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, has already taken over the reins of power , but what might this mean for Israel politics in the long term?
Well it means that that all of Sharon's carefully laid plans, and all of the political maneuvering that went on during the last six weeks after Sharon announced that he was going to found a new political party — the Kadima Party — all goes up in flames.

Assuming that he doesn’t actually make any full recovery, or that he doesn’t continue in politics, it’s like all the cards that were so carefully being staked for the future political set-up of Israel have just been thrown up in the air.

Now no one has the faintest idea what’s going to happen. It’s really quite a dramatic moment that Israel is facing. One of the senior politicians said that the Israeli elections scheduled for March 28 will now be the most dramatic elections in Israel’s history.

The point is that Sharon’s party really was a one-man party — he had never actually laid down what the platform of his party was.

Yet, because of his own personal power and attraction at the moment, he was able to attract all kinds of prominent politicians from the Labor Party, including Shimon Peres, and from the Likud Party, the Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

All of these people joined Sharon, really only on the basis of his credibility, not on the basis of any platform that he actually promised.

So, you now have this Kadima party, which is made up of all of these people who have joined Sharon from the left and the right, but they don’t have a platform, and it’s not clear what their party stands for. So, it’s a very strange situation.

The other important point to mention is that while Sharon, as the leader of Kadima looked like he would win about 40-42 seats in the next election — which would give him a clear majority and make him the next prime minister — now that is completely in the air.

Now, it looks like the race will be as it usually is — between Likud and the Labor Party — so between the left wing and the right wing.

But, the first polls since Sharon's collapse suggest that Kadima could well maintain its strength, even without Sharon.

Right now, it's just all speculation. This is new ground for Israel. So, Sharon's legacy could well continue in his new party, just with weaker figures at the top.

Now, where does this leave some of his opponents, like Benjamin Netanyahu? Does this open a space for him?
Yes, dramatically so. Suddenly, Netanyahu, who was being completely written off as a possible prime minister and his future in politics was even questioned, is now back in the picture. When Sharon formed this new party, he took with him many of the senior members of the Likud Party, leaving Netanyahu pretty much abandoned by most of the strong members of the party.

So, the opinion polls were giving Netanyahu only about 12 seats in the next parliament, which is a dramatic decline — an embarrassing, humiliating decline

Now — suddenly, with all the cards up in the air again — Netanyahu is right back in the running again as a possible future prime minister, whereas he had no chance just 24 hours ago.

What kind of effect could Sharon's passing or simply his inability to return to political life, have on the peace process?
Well that’s one of the major cards — one of the aces, if you like — that’s up in the air.

Although Sharon had not committed himself to any specific political platform, nevertheless, there were many hints that his plan was to move quickly towards peace with the Palestinians. And if not peace talks with the Palestinians, he would unilaterally define what Israel’s eastern border would be — which is critical of course, because that would be the border between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

So, that’s what everyone assumed Sharon was up to. That he was going to go quickly and a long way toward an agreement with the Palestinians.

Now, with him being in this position, there is no leader of Kadima that could take over and take such bold moves with the confidence of Sharon, and probably with the support of the people that backed Sharon.

Because Sharon is this great “security” figure in Israel’s history, he is trusted by many Israelis who believe that this needs to be done — giving up land for peace with the Palestinians. And Sharon is the man to do it, that’s why they gave such support to his new party.

So, the question is, will they still support that new party if it’s not Sharon at the helm, but some one like Ehud Olmert or any of the other figures that have joined him there. But, none of them have his stature.

So, the peace process, such as it is, with Sharon in power looked like it could make major progress. Without Sharon, it would be hard to imagine how it could make any progress at all, certainly in the near future.

Sharon has forged close ties with the White House. What does his illness mean in terms of the U.S. having a partner in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Well, I think that the Americans will continue to have a partner, no matter who their leader is, Israel’s relationship with the United States is still the most important political relationship the country has. The better the relationship is with the White House, the better for Israel.

The question really is the other way around: What will happen to American foreign policy?

America really wanted very much and was pushing very hard for Sharon to bend and compromise with the Palestinians. That could easily be a significant foreign policy success for the White House if Israel made some real peace moves toward the Palestinians and vice versa.

So, without Sharon in that position to push the peace process forward, there are a lot of questions about the success of America’s foreign policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Americans won’t have their tough guy on the ground doing what they want. Instead, they’ll probably have somebody else who would like to do what the Americans want, but may not have the power the Sharon has to carry it out.

On the other hand, for many Palestinians, the ex-general is regarded as an enemy because of his bloody military campaigns against Palestinian in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere. Might his exit from the political scene create an opening for new relations to be formed?
Not really. Sharon is a man that the Arabs love to hate and many of them would say that they have good reason for that. He has been the war-horse of Israel — he’s fought in every single war since 1948. As far as the Arabs are concerned, he has a lot of Arab blood on his hands.

So, on the one hand, they don’t like Sharon, but, they did learn to deal with him.

Even in the last 24 hours there have been several major Arab analysts who have said some rather dramatic things.

One writer in particular said that although Sharon was the ogre of the park, nevertheless, he was the first Israeli leader who actually was in the process of giving up land for peace with the Palestinians. That’s quite a positive comment from a senior member of the Arab press.

However, whoever is the Israeli leader will be the partner of the Palestinians in any peace talks — so it doesn’t really matter if it’s Sharon or anybody else.

Sharon was a guy that they didn’t like personally, they didn’t like his past. Nevertheless, they respected the fact that he had turned a corner now and that he was an important figure in any future peace talks — in the sense that only Sharon could make it happen.

In the meantime, in terms of violence and instability, will this have any immediate repercussions on the rise of violence at the moment?
I don’t think so. Raanan Gissin, Sharon’s spokesman, said today that no one should try to take advantage of this period and that Israeli security forces were ready to respond to any challenge.

So far, there haven’t been any outbreaks of violence, if anything it’s gotten quieter over the last 24 hours.

But, I would image that the chances of the Palestinians, or Hezbollah in south Lebanon, trying to take advantage by firing more rockets at Israel is a strong possibility.

But I would also imagine that Israel would respond very strongly indeed to make sure that the message got across that while Sharon may be out of commission, that doesn’t mean that Israel should be taken lightly.