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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima faction attempted to convey a message of "business as usual" on Monday despite Sharon's hospitalization, but questions of who would succeed Sharon as Kadima leader detracted from the show of party harmony.
The faction convened in the Knesset on Monday afternoon, with Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sitting in Sharon's usual seat to the left of faction chair Roni Bar-On, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on Bar-On's right.
Whenever Sharon eventually leaves politics - whether due to health or other reasons - a leadership battle is expected between Olmert, Livni, Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Sharon will take an important step toward determining his successor when he decides who will be placed second on the Kadima list by the February 7 deadline to submit the list to the Central Elections Committee.
Livni said she hoped that she would be placed second on the list, Sheetrit said he was "definitely interested" in being Kadima leader after Sharon and Olmert said discussing such issues now was "inappropriate." Former Shin-Bet chief Avi Dichter is set to return from the US on Tuesday to bolster the party.
Kadima strategists Lior Chorev, Eyal Arad and Reuven Adler and pollster Kalman Gayer came to the meeting and talked about how Sharon's health presented an opportunity to show the public that Kadima is more than just Sharon. Chorev said the timing of Sharon's stroke was not as bad as it has been portrayed, because the Likud primary would defer attention from Sharon's hospitalization.
"Sharon is Kadima's greatest asset but we have the best, most experienced team of any party," Olmert said. "Calling Kadima a one-man party is a misrepresentation. We have a strong group with experience in running the affairs of the state."
Sheetrit said that "Sharon's illness doesn't change anything, and anyways its behind us." He expressed confidence that Sharon would "come back more energetic than ever."
"Kadima is based on Sharon but we also have a good group of people with a united vision, skills and experience," Livni said. "Naturally the focus is on the head of the party but we are also the party with the path that is best for leading Israel."
Deputy Immigrant Absorption Minister Marina Solodkin said she believes that with Sharon the party is worth 50 mandates, but without him it is still worth 30.
"We're not Sharon's midgets," Solodkin said. "We're valued too. Without him - God forbid - we would still win the election. And anyway, the cemeteries are full of people who were irreplaceable."