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Future of Israeli Politics Uncertain as Sharon Lies Ill

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Israeli officials say elections in that country will go ahead as planned in March. They'll go ahead despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's life-threatening stroke yesterday. Sharon is said to be on life support and doctors say he is in serious but stable condition. Right now we're gonna look at the role that Sharon has played in Israeli politics and what his departure from the scene might mean. We've reached Gerald Steinberg, who is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and he joins us on the line from Jerusalem.

Welcome to the program.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Bar-Ilan University): Good morning.

INSKEEP: I've been struck when speaking to people in Israel today, even those who disliked Ariel Sharon say quite openly that he played a huge, huge role in Israeli politics and in Israeli life.

Prof. STEINBERG: That's certainly true. He's been an important figure since the 1950s, played a major role in the turnaround in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, but most importantly he's dominated Israeli politics since 2001 when he became prime minister. He's the one who brought Israel out of Gaza. He changed the rules of the game. It's just as much as Nixon going to China, perhaps more in Middle Eastern terms. There really is no other figure that played the role that he has in this period of time.

INSKEEP: And he also changed Israeli politics by founding a new centrist political party which--in which he was going to be the dominant figure. What happens to that party now?

Prof. STEINBERG: I think that's a very good question and nobody has any good answers because there are no other major figures. Yes, Shimon Peres, who was the perennial number-two head of the Labor Party for a long time, in his 80s, is also a member of that party, but I don't think Israelis are gonna go for someone else who is that old and that fragile. And there really are no other national names, people who are very well known. We have the current prime minister stand-in, Ehud Olmert, who is the mayor of Jerusalem, but also doesn't really have a national constituency.

The party, however, is based on a desire by Israelis to want to go to a more centrist, pragmatic policy, rejection of left-wing solutions and right-wing solutions and, say, let's just roll through it one day at a time. So I think there will still be a demand for that kind of politics. The question is whether they're going to be leaders.

INSKEEP: Well, give us your forecast there. Do you think that that party can stay together or at least the centrist idea can stay together?

Prof. STEINBERG: I think the centrist idea is here to stay. It works. The pragmatism is important. But it's gonna take a big hit. Instead of getting a third of the votes in the upcoming elections, it might get half of that unless there's some sympathy vote. But it's going to have trouble finding a leader. It's gonna be divided a lot, and it may not be for three or four years that that party's gonna play a major role in Israeli politics. We're likely, instead, to have fragile coalitions again for a while and perhaps a number of different prime ministers as we go through that process.

INSKEEP: Just checking, you said a third and a half. You mean that the vote will go down for this party, you think.

Prof. STEINBERG: Yes, I think it will go down significantly to half of what it might have been if Sharon had been leading it, if Sharon had been healthy and leading it.

INSKEEP: Which...

Prof. STEINBERG: Instead of being the dominant party, it'll be one of a number of relatively smaller parties.

INSKEEP: Which leads to the question of who will benefit if Sharon does not recover as is not at this moment expected.

Prof. STEINBERG: It's very hard to tell who's gonna be coming up through the system. It's possible for a short term that Mr. Netanyahu will be seen as someone who's had prime ministerial experience, was a successful treasury minister and may be seen as an anchor in a storm, but there's also a lot of negatives Netanyahu carries, and he's going to have to change those if he's gonna be able to re-create a national presence. And there'll be a number of other people whose names most Israelis don't know and certainly it's not something in North America that's gonna be very familiar. We're gonna have a new generation of politicians, if not in the next six months, then I think very definitely in the next two or three years. It is gonna change Israeli politics and might--very likely within that centrist framework. We just don't know who the names are right now.

INSKEEP: Mr. Steinberg, thanks very much.

Prof. STEINBERG: OK. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Gerald Steinberg is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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