Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a “significant” stroke with “massive bleeding” in his brain late Wednesday night, according to an official at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem and Sharon’s authority has been transferred to Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
This is a dreaded day in the life of Israel. The day that Ariel Sharon became incapacitated and could no longer play the super-sized role he’s played on the Israeli political scene for several decades (but especially in the time he’s been premier). While Sharon’s departure from the scene is not a given (many people can recover from such strokes and continue to function somewhat normally), it’s worthwhile speculating on what the future bears. Before I speculate, Robert Rosenberg today (before the news of Sharon’s stroke) published a prescient column at Ariga.com:
The poll [giving Kadima an increased mandate of 41-42 seats] came out on the eve of the prime minister’s angioplastic surgery, meant to repair a small, congenital hole between two of his heart cavities, which doctors say was the reason he suffered a minor stroke recently as a result of a blood clot making its way through the hole. The entire procedure due in Thursday, is said to take about three hours from the time he is given general anesthesia to the time he awakens. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, has been formally named as Sharon’s replacement for those few hours.
Of course, despite all the efforts by the premier’s doctors to put a good face on the show, saying the operation is nearly routine, ‘simple,’ etc., any invasive operation is risky, particularly for an overweight man in his 70s who has been taking pills for gout for years and is essentially blind in his left eye.
So far, Sharon’s heath problems have obviously not affected his Kadima campaign adversely, if anything, he is perceived as much more of a machismo, able to go into surgery without batting an eyelash and still manipulate the political arena any way he wants.
But a Sharon departure from the political arena, now or in the inevitable future, is going to be the real ‘big bang’ of Israeli politics, as he and Shimon Peres are the last two Israeli politicians who were adults (albeit young adults) in the War of Independence, the last two who remember the shock of the news about what happened in Europe to the Jews, the last of those who remember the Israeli nation-building of the 1930s-1950s, the last two who remember the nation’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.
When Sharon goes, whenever that happens and for whatever reason, the last of the titans will disappear from the arena and suddenly, it will become a more or less even and level playing field, something it has not been since Sharon’s arrival in the prime minister’s office five years ago. Since then, he has not merely dominated Israeli politics, he has controlled it almost completely, first imposing a no negotiations with the Palestinians policy, and then inventing his unilateral evacuation of Gaza and the northern West Bank around Jenin, a move that was predicted to start an Israeli civil war but in the end took only barely a week from start to finish.
Sharon’s departure is inevitable, of course, since he is only human. But neither his health problems nor his legal problems seem likely yet to drive him off the stage before the national elections on March 28. Still, the possibility that he might be forced out is not far-fetched. Much can happen between now and March 28…
The NY Times also notes this major news story broadcast on Israeli TV on Tuesday night which certainly couldn’t have much reduced Sharon’s stress level:
And Tuesday night, Israeli television showed a document provided by the police to a court seeking the right to investigate computers belonging to two Austrian-based brothers, Martin and James Schlaff, who own part of a casino, now closed, in Jericho, on the West Bank. The police say they believe the computers will contain evidence of a $3 million payment to the Sharon family, at least half of which was used to repay illegal campaign contributions from that same 1999 campaign. The Schlaffs are clients of Dov Weissglas, Mr. Sharon’s own lawyer and close political adviser. But there is apparently no evidence that links any payments to Mr. Sharon himself, making a bribery indictment highly unlikely.
My first impression was that Sharon’s medical team did him a tremendous disservice (and possibly is guilty of malpractice) by not repairing Sharon’s heart immediately after his last stroke. They will certainly come in for much criticism in the coming days especially if Sharon’s health deteriorates or he cannot resume his duties. It would be unconscionable for the nation to lose its political leader due to a doctor’s mistake.
Now, of course, Kadima will be in a shambles. Ehud Olmert takes over. He is a political veteran and longtime number 2 to Sharon. He may be able to fill his shoes. But odds are he will simply not take over Sharon’s mantle. Who could? Tonight, Bibi Netanyahu has to be a happy (if you can use that word in this situation) man. All of a sudden, his arch-nemesis has been sidelined. Doubtless, Bibi feels the prime ministership is his for the asking. No doubt Likud will surge in future polls without Sharon in the picture. But God help us (and the Palestinians) if he wins.
But Labor will also surge because many new Kadima votes have been coming from moderate voters who left the Labor party to join Sharon (and Shimon) when he founded Kadima. Doubtless, those voters will be looking elsewhere and Amir Peretz’s Labor will start looking good to them once more.
In fact, I’m afraid that Sharon’s crisis will revert the Israeli political scene back to the same old stale choices they had before the split from Likud: a hardline ultra-nationalist Likud and a defanged Labor. The only wrinkle to this view is that Peretz’ leadership will guarantee that Labor is no longer defanged. But whether he can carry masses of voters with his renewed vision of Labor remains to be seen.
Doubtless, there will be many Palestinians publicly or privately expressing glee at this development. If those individuals or groups want continued war with Israel then they are right to celebrate. But I’d caution them if they are in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state and full sovereignty for Palestine, then their mirth is misplaced. A Peretz victory might move them closer to their vision for Palestine. But a Netanyahu victory means disaster on the peace front. I’ve deliberately left out the option of a Kadima victory because it now seems so remote. But one must assume that everything is fluid in Israeli politics. There could be a wave of nostalgia and empathy flowing Kadima’s way from the Israeli electorate which might push Olmert to victory. If he does win, he will probably try to carry forward Sharon’s vision, but I doubt he will have the deft tactical political hand of a Sharon. And he will need it if he is to survive as PM.
Israeli politics has not faced a more confused, bereft night since the one on which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, a little more than 10 years ago. And the comparison between the two events is instructive.
In both events, you had a formerly hawkish prime minister who’d discovered a way to moderate his positions in order to advance the cause of peace. Both Rabin and Sharon faced enormous demonization for moderating their politics, Rabin from Likud & other far right groups (one of whose members killed him) and Sharon too from the rump right of Likud. No doubt the stress and hatred both faced contributed significantly to their downfall (though thankfully, Sharon may someday recover at least somewhat from his stroke).
But what is most important in both events is what happened–and in tonight’s case what will happen–after. In the case of Rabin, Shimon Peres inherited his mantle and with the “help” of Palestinian militants who launched a massive terror campaign lost the next election, which in turn brought Bibi to power. This meant the end of Rabin’s turning toward peace and a retrenchment of the Occupation & Israeli intransigence in the face of Palestinian demands for freedom.
If Kadima wins minus Sharon, then one assumes the latter’s policies of creeping toward some sort of peace process (albeit a unilateral one) will continue. Though for how long is a big question. If Peretz wins, then that could mean the biggest breakthrough for peace. But it’s questionable whether his bold social democratic/peace politics can carry enough voters with him in order to win. And if Netanyahu wins it will be just as disastrous when he won in 1996 after Rabin’s murder.
Everything hangs in the balance on this fateful night…
I have one very personal connection to this sad story. My father, Jule Silverstein, died (as with Rabin, also in December, 1995) of a cerebral hemorrhage. Like Sharon, he had gout and serious pain in his legs. His doctor worried that he might have a blood clot in his leg and so prescribed coumadin, a blood thinner. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t monitor his medication level monthly as he should have and it drifted dangerously high. Coumadin at such high levels is likely to cause blood vessels to rupture. I wouldn’t be surprised if coumadin contributed to Sharon’s stroke. It’s a drug that needs to be monitored very carefully.