Analysis: Sharon soars in Israeli polls

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 20, 2005 at 12:38 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- 'Tis the season for comeback kids. Right after President George W. Bush's standing rebounded strongly by 9 percentage points in a U.S. poll, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon soared back in popularity right after news he had suffered a minor stroke.

Bush was boosted by an apparently embarrassing controversy on domestic electronic surveillance that played to his strengths as America's determined defender after Sept. 11, 2001. And similarly, Sharon has profited from focus on the widespread sense in Israel that he is the embodiment of the country's tough but realistic mainstream.

Sharon, 78, was reported Sunday night to have suffered a stroke. Monday brought clarification that it was only a minor one and the prognosis for a total recovery was excellent. But the shock of possible life without him focused the public's minds wonderfully. In recent weeks, the political wheeling and dealing that surrounded the formation of the prime minister's new centrist Kadima movement had weakened his support. His main challenger, former Prime Minister and former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the clear favorite to succeed Sharon as leader of the right wing Likud Party, had gained significant ground on him.

However, according to two polls published Tuesday, Sharon's support has come storming back.

The Maariv newspaper gave Kadima 42 seats, or more than one-third, in the Knesset. The Labor Party, now reinvigorated and transformed under its first ever working-class Sephardi leader, Amir Peretz, came second with 22 seats. And Likud, the party has dominated Israeli politics since 1977, would collapse to 13 seats, the lowest point in its history since first taking power.

The poll also suggested a general collapse of the religious-nationalist right and its marginalization to a degree not seen in 30 years. All the ultra-religious and extreme nationalist parties together, even combined with Likud, only commanded 26 seats -- hardly more than a quarter of the Knesset.

Another poll in the Yediot Aharonot Tuesday told an almost identical story, confirming Kadima's rise and Likud's collapse: It gave 39 seats for Sharon's party, 21 for Labor, and, again, 13 for the Likud.

If those poll figures were replicated in a general election, the result would be the biggest Israeli political upheaval in 28 years, and arguably ever. It would give Sharon and his Kadima list the power to create a simple, dominating coalition with only "new" Labor under Peretz as its partner that would not need to make concessions to any other parties or strike messy deals with anyone else at all.

Together, Kadima and Labor would control 60 to 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, creating a potential coalition simpler, stronger and more lasting than any since the 15 years David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai Party, the forerunner of Labor, controlled the destinies of the state from 1948 to 1963.

The polls confirmed earlier figures that show the underlying loyalties and dynamics of Israeli politics transforming in ways not seen for a quarter of a century. Poor, working-class Sephardis, the backbone of Likud support since its charismatic creator, Menahem Begin, won their hearts in the 1960s and '70s, have been infuriated by the hardships inflicted on them by Netanyahu's free-market reforms as finance minister. They are defecting en masse, not to Sharon and Kadima, but to Peretz and his dynamic, transformed Labor, a party of real social change for the first time since the old founding fathers of it were ousted with Golda Meir in 1974.

Many of the 700,000 recent Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel and their families since 1989 have followed Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, out of Likud to Kadima. They want secular domestic policies, livable social and economic conditions and a strong but non-messianic or extremist foreign and security policy.

The middle class Ashkenazi professionals around Tel Aviv and Haifa that were the mainstay of Labor support under Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin are flocking to Sharon and Kadima, too. And they are abandoning Yosef "Tommy" Lapid's secular Shinui Party that was a rising force in the last two elections. The polls showed Shinui support collapsing: The Maariv one gave it only five seats, less than half its current total of 11.

The Maariv poll also showed the hunger of mainstream centrist Israelis for a new politics might well even survive Sharon. It showed support for Kadima collapsing from 42 seats to only 26 if the party was led by his loyal lieutenant and clear preferred favorite to succeed him, Deputy Prime Minister and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. But even that would give Kadima, in partnership with Labor, a minimum of 48 seats in the Knesset -- quite probably enough to form the core of another center-left coalition.

But if Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the highly respected and incorruptible justice minister and the new "Ms. Clean" of Israeli politics, succeeded Sharon in leading Kadima, its support would revive to 30 seats, the Maariv poll found.

It is still far too soon to count Likud out. Netanyahu, now almost certain to return as its leader after his victory Monday over Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in the party's primary election, is a tough and determined fighter.

"It's hard to believe the Likud will continue on this downward path. The campaign, Netanyahu's charisma, the beat of the tom-toms will bring the voters back home," Maariv wrote. But it then added, "Whether this will be a trickle or a flow of support, only time will tell."

However, Netanyahu's charisma has never translated well from the Likud faithful to the Israeli public at large. In 1996, he only won the premiership from Peres, a man who never won a single national election in nearly three decades of trying, by a hairsbreadth. And in 1999 he was swept to defeat at the hands of Labor when it was led by Ehud Barak, hardly a political heavyweight.

Instead, the polls confirm the centrality of Sharon in Israeli political life almost five years after he first assumed the premiership in the face of the second Palestinian intifada.

"More than ever before, this poll proves that Ariel Sharon mark 2006 is the ultimate father of us all," Maariv wrote.

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