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Ariel Sharon's political career is ending the way it began: in a storm. With Gaza boiling, terror escalating and scandals abounding, the last days in Sharon's public career were as eventful as the numerous dramas that filled it since its launch more than half a century ago.
Even so, the warrior who barged into the civilian fray by creating the party that dominated Israeli politics for nearly three decades is going it just when his meandering career has reached its improbable climax. Widespread concern for what will fill the void he is leaving is therefore understandable.
All nine premierships that preceded Sharon's ended in tragedy, cut short by intrigue, war, disease, electoral debacle, even assassination. Sharon's turn at the wheel, which was initially expected to be brief, contentious and unimaginative, gradually emerged as efficient, historic and unassailable. With the looming success of his new party, the last of a frequently adventurous life's countless gambles, Sharon seemed headed not just to a third straight landslide, but to a kind of clout second only to David Ben-Gurion's, and a premiership that would conceivably last through 2010.
Yet Sharon's years at the top, like all his predecessors', are also ending in tragedy, and an untold number of additional years will have to elapse before an Israeli prime minister retires voluntarily and peacefully.
Who knows just what it was that finally defeated Sharon. Strokes often have emotional dimensions that are impossible to gauge, and Sharon's will always leave room for speculation concerning its circumstances.
It takes no great playwright to imagine Sharon thinking, during those last fateful moments in his ranch - maybe while looking through the window at his beloved Lily's grave site - about their son's premature political retirement this week, about the renewed interest in the two's dubious campaign financing, about the latest terror warnings here and Iranian exhortations there, before a familiar thud echoed dimly from nearby Sderot. "Gaza," he may well have told himself, seconds before being whisked away in a howling ambulance, while leaning on a wall, his eyes closed, and briefly recalling, one last time, his early visitations as a celebrated commando to the Palestinian region from which he would eventually retreat as a celebrated statesman.
For their part, Israelis of all walks of life did not say Thursday "Gaza," but "Arik," expressing a pervasive anxiety as the post-Sharon era dawned unannounced.
Affinity for the man whose image somehow transformed over the years from Tarzan to Santa Claus is indeed nearly universal. Now it is also making some contend that Sharon is irreplaceable. Though his successors are fortunately not related to what scandalized his career, they are equally bereft of what made it a success, and therefore stand no chance of filling his large shoes, say these pundits.
They are wrong.
True, Sharon's last project, the Kadima Party, has yet to mature, and Ehud Olmert would be the first to concede that Arik's charisma was larger than his. However, deep political undercurrents as well as immediate circumstances are playing into Olmert's hands.
It is very tempting to confuse Kadima with previous centrist experiments, from Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way to Rafael Eitan's Tsomet or even Tommy Lapid's Shinui, all of which won some following and then lost it. Yet Kadima is different.
First, its candidates are not the kind of nonentities Eitan had or the anonymous lawyers Shinui later gathered, but a serious group of old hands in the political, academic and military establishments. Sharon's following was not only, or even mainly, because of the disengagement from Gaza, but because he fought terror fearlessly and efficiently. The voters who yesterday prayed for Sharon's recovery are the same ones who, come March 28, will stare at the ballots and wonder who will best confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Chances are most will prefer Avi Dichter and Shaul Mofaz to, say, Silvan Shalom and Dan Naveh, not to mention Amir Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich.
Secondly, beyond the political and technocratic experience they bring, Kadima's candidates share a conviction, which is to unilaterally create a de-facto border between Israel and the Palestinians. More deeply, this addresses a widespread and deep-rooted yearning for the restoration of the pre-'67 consensus, by eradicating the futile war of nearly four decades between the Greater Israel and Land-for-Peace schools of thought, which most Israelis have learned to reject as na ve utopias.
Kadima really can nurture its image as the consensus party, the one that blends military resolve with diplomatic flexibility, capitalism with compassion, and Judaism with liberalism. This, Olmert and his colleagues can honestly and very effectively present as the Sharon legacy, a concept that will resonate much more effectively than Labor's competing, amorphous term - the Rabin legacy - not to mention the current Likud's problem with Menachem Begin's legacy of a massive territorial concession.
Thirdly, lamentable as Sharon's untimely political departure is, its timing is better for his successors than it might otherwise have been, since it arrived 83 days before the elections, which leaves them with too much shock, and too little time, to fall apart, but also with sufficient time to pull their act together.
Lastly, there is the Olmert factor.
For the acting premier, the timing of these otherwise tragic developments could hardly be more opportune.
At 60 he is strong and fit, but also armed with extensive political experience, including nearly a decade as mayor of one of the world's most complex cities, 32 years in national politics, and lengthy ministerial years that go back 18 years and culminate with three years as Sharon's right-hand man. Olmert therefore arrives at his job seasoned, besides enjoying the backwind of a shell-shocked public's empathy.
Potential challengers from within Kadima, particularly political novices like Mofaz and Dichter, would do well to remember that what Olmert may have already forgotten about the vocation of politics, they have not yet even learned. Besides the fact that he is as electable and as much a leader and visionary as any of them, all of Kadima's would-be leaders have no choice but to unequivocally rally behind Olmert, the way Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, with typical wisdom and grace, did already Thursday.
For his part, Olmert would do well to start avoiding the kind of bickering duels he sometimes can't resist joining, and focus on fashioning himself as a social and political bridge-builder, the way another finance minister, Levi Eshkol, did back when he succeeded another prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who, much like Sharon, was also portrayed as larger than life. Eshkol was never larger than life, but his premiership was a massive success.
In the coming days Olmert must gather and organize Kadima and take it to war, so as to arrive at the election as an incumbent, legitimate and effective prime minister.
None of this will be easy, but it's all feasible. If he makes no big mistakes, he will emerge as this mayhem's big winner, and Ariel Sharon's rightful successor.