While Israel has been obsessing over the health of both the prime minister and his abandoned former party, it has paid little heed to mid-December's other election, the one that brought such sweeping gains for Hamas in the West Bank. As army intelligence chiefs predict that Gaza will turn into "Hamastown" and city after West Bank city falls under the control of the Islamic extremists, it becomes ever harder to accept the argument that Palestinians are voting solely or primarily for Hamas "good governance" over Fatah corruption, and that the avowed Hamas goal of eliminating Israel is a secondary or even marginal consideration in their choice. In any event, precisely what motivated the voters of Jenin, El-Bireh and Nablus is less relevant than the consequence: Hamas, patron of the suicide bombers, is becoming increasingly dominant; the secular Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, expressing opposition to terrorism but practically tolerating it, is being brushed aside. In deriding and denouncing Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud on Monday night, leading Kadima recruit Meir Sheetrit talked up his new party's pragmatic vision of careful peacemaking with the Palestinians. But it was hard to reconcile that laudable ambition with the reality of those new Hamas gains. There is a contradiction at the heart of the Kadima message, and the rise of Hamas only exacerbates it. Sharon's party formally and angrily denies assertions, even those sometimes made by its own people, that it would carry out further withdrawals from the West Bank to unilaterally shape Israel's borders. Territory will only be relinquished at the negotiating table, it insists, and there can be no substantive talks until the Palestinian leadership dismantles the terror groups. Sadly, for now, it acknowledges, the PA is doing no such thing; indeed the PA is losing power to the extremists. So, sadly, for now, there can be no talks. And yet, at the same time, Kadima's almost 78-year-old leader is running for reelection with the stated ambition of setting Israel's final borders - a goal which, in the absence of a negotiating partner, can only be achieved unilaterally. Doubtless middle Israel - that confused mainstream, to the right of Amir Peretz's reviving Labor and to the left of the new Netanyahu Likud, which is contemplating voting for Kadima in such large numbers - recognizes the contradiction. It has evidently decided, nevertheless, that given the personalities and the positions and the records of the various party leaders, it would rather support Sharon, contradictions and all. For middle Israel, notwithstanding the Kassam fire at the Ashkelon industrial zone and the ongoing plight of some of the evacuated families, the Gaza pullout has been an overwhelming success. And whether or not that same swathe of the electorate truly believes this to be a realistic long-term solution, the notion that we might somehow be able to similarly extricate ourselves from a significant proportion of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians to stew in their rising Hamas juices behind a security barrier, is tremendously attractive. Sharon, so determinedly inarticulate when he chooses to be, is steadfastly refusing to detail precisely what he has in mind for Judea and Samaria, and is thus keeping as much of our uncertain electorate with him as he can. But the calibrated vagueness middle Israel will tolerate from Sharon it will not, I think, tolerate from Kadima's other would-be heavy hitters. That didn't really matter until this week, until Sharon's veneer of invincibility was breached by that fast-dispersing little blood clot. And it may not matter again for the next three months if, until polling day, a reinvigorated Sharon pounds the campaign trail in indisputably fine fettle, rendering this week's hospital stay a forgotten blip. Scrambling to shed Kadima's "Sharon-and-assorted others" tag, Sheetrit, on TV this week, insisted that it had drawn up a clear platform, and that this would be distributed to "every voter in the country" before polling day. It will need to be a masterpiece of linguistic flexibility to satisfy leaders with positions as diverse as Tzahi Hanegbi and Shimon Peres. But no amount of such contortion can possibly maintain Kadima's broad popularity in these elections if it is led by a Tzipi Livni or an Ehud Olmert. No, Kadima may not quite be a one-man party, but much of its appeal undeniably derives from the stature of that one man. It will flourish in these elections only if its dominant presence is Sharon - the cheerful embodiment of contradiction, yet the most reassuring of all Israeli politicians to middle Israel. Sooner rather than later, though, Sharon will have to abandon a calculated vagueness that is barely defensible even for his short-term political needs. He asserts, and many Israelis believe, that he is uniquely placed to understand how Israel can best guarantee its future. The more he cares about Kadima outliving him, the more concerned he is, indeed, to safeguard the country he will one day inevitably leave behind, the more effort he must put into articulating his path to a secure Israel. *** One of the more worrying sights for Netanyahu, on the night of his return to the leadership of the Likud, should have been that of Limor Livnat's less than delighted expression on her arrival at party headquarters for his victory celebrations. Though a long way from everyone's ideal education minister, Livnat is nonetheless an astute politician, a traditional Likud thinker who has stood with Netanyahu in critiquing unilateral disengagement, and someone who watched her own ministry director-general join Sharon's Kadima while firmly rejecting the notion of defecting in the same direction. Livnat looked and sounded worried late Monday night - not by the fact of Netanyahu's victory, which she would presumably have anticipated, but by the goodly proportion of votes attracted by the theocrat Moshe Feiglin, by the evidence that his positions are backed by some of the most energetic members of her party, by the possible impact on her standing within the Likud, and by the radical message his success threatens to convey to potential Likud voters. Netanyahu devoted his victory speech to stressing the desire to heal party ranks shaken by Sharon's departure and, after that, to unify the nation. Ex-Likud "rebel" MK Michael Ratzon used a brief television interview minutes earlier to play up the very qualities for which he would hitherto have been expected to lambaste a Likud leader - Netanyahu's centrist credentials, as evidenced by his implementation of the 1997 pullout from most of Hebron and his signature on the following year's Wye agreement. But Livnat, stopping for the camera crews in the doorway of Metzudat Ze'ev, spoke about Feiglin, asserting strenuously that he and his supporters, whose declared aim is to utilize Israel's democracy in order to abandon it in favor of a halachic state, do not represent the true face of the Likud. She's right, mostly. Feiglin got his 12 percent because more than half of the Likud's eligible members didn't bother to vote, and because his supporters did, disproportionately, in settlements across the West Bank and, most dramatically, in Jerusalem, the Likud's biggest branch, where he pushed Silvan Shalom into third place. But those who don't turn out don't count, and much as sober voices in the Likud would like to dodge and deny it, Monday demonstrated that Feiglinism is a rising force in their party, better organized and more highly motivated than many other streams within it. And while Livnat indicated anxiety about how this might affect her personal placement on the Likud's slate of candidates for the next Knesset, she was concerned, too, about the likelihood of Feiglin alienating a wider Israeli electorate who might come to regard the Likud as less a mainstream party than one of the radical Right. It turns out that the pollsters did a better-than-usual job of predicting the Likud contest. But their uneven record on the national level, and their tendency to underestimate right-wing support, required that plenty of skepticism be applied to the predictions in recent weeks of the Likud managing barely a dozen, if not fewer, Knesset seats in March. With its leadership issue now settled, with Sharon's health scare reducing the indomitable prime minister to human proportions and putting age on the agenda, and with the success of Hamas in the West Bank municipal elections highlighting the apparent further radicalization of Palestinian society, a Likud rebuilt in Netanyahu's image ought to be comfortably able to attract more than 10 percent of the electorate. Not so, however, a Likud with an overt strain of Feiglinism.