Josh Marshall shudders to think what the final story will be in light of Ariel Sharon’s “significant” stroke earlier today. No one knows, of course, but let’s assume that Sharon is incapacitated for an extended period of time, a reasonable assumption for a stroke victim who is 77 years old, 5’7″, and weighs well over 250 pounds.
It seems to me pretty clear what Kadima needs to do: immediately declare Ehud Olmert the leader of the party, and have him conduct a press conference flanked by Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz. Olmert is currently deputy prime minister, a Sharon loyalist, someone with strong right-wing credentials but who isn’t crazy. Kadima’s charter lists him as second-in-command. But Peres is critical, too: his presence, and vocal support for Olmert as interim party leader, demonstrates that Kadima is more than just a Likud breakway faction. A few weeks ago, Peres’ jumping from Labor seemed little more than window-dressing: now, it is crucial for Kadima’s image as a centrist party. It would also help Peres’ image, which now is that of a political opportunist, to very publicly not attempt to use this opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Mofaz is important because he is a former IDF chief of staff, a former Likudnik, and–perhaps most importantly–a Mizrachi (Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern descent, in this case, Iranian). The question is whether they can do this: Peres and Olmert are not fond of each other, and Olmert and Mofaz are rivals for the hawkish side of the Kadima coalition. Another key player could be Dan Meridor, a former Likud politician who jumped ship several years ago out of disgust with the right’s rejectionism and has come back to politics to be in Kadima: Meridor is my favorite Israeli politicial figure, someone of great judgment and centrist credentials. He could provide ballast to the increasingly rickety Kadima ship.
Labor needs to smoothly upgrade the presence on its ticket of Ami Ayalon, the former Israel Navy and Shin Bet chief, who is the architect of the best Israeli-Palestinian framework peace deal, and now Labor’s best spokesperson on security. Labor leader Amir Peretz, the former leader of the Histadrut (Israel’s mainlabor organization) and a Mizrachi himself, has driven Labor to a full-throated advocacy of social democracy. This makes sense long-term, and also in an election where Sharon is participating: voters can vote Labor knowing that it won’t really be running the security apparatus and would most like be a junior partner in Sharon’s coalition. Now, Labor needs to establish its security bonafides. The trick is to maintain the focus on domestic social democracy while demonstrating its strength on defense issues. Another good tack would be to give a higher profile role to Fuad Ben-Eliezer, the former Labor chief and Defence Minister, but he and Peretz loath each other (notice a pattern here?), so this is not likely.
Over in the rump Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy is essentially to try to make the Likud defectors forget what a duplicitous politician he is. His obvious goal is to attract back Likud voters and former Likud politicians, but he cannot do so on substantive grounds: his entire claim to leadership is that he is the pure embodiment of traditional right-wing values. Moreover, he cannot attempt to woo back Likud’s traditional, working-class, mostly Mizrachi constituency on economic grounds because as Finance Minister he presided over the Thatcherite policies that they abhor. So he must do so on personal grounds, assuring people that he is not vindictive or petty and will welcome all former Likudniks back in the party. This will be difficult because everyone knows him to be vindictive and petty.
Over the next few weeks, we will see the Israeli political class’ pettiness and childishness at its worst; the question is whether this childishness will obstruct what are fairly straightforward strategies for the three major parties. Something in me suspects that the big winners in all of this will be the religious parties, because–well–they always seem to be the big winners.