Israel marks year without towering figure of Sharon

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel on Thursday marks one year since a massive stroke felled Ariel Sharon and left the former premier who for decades dominated the nation’s political landscape in a coma.

In the year since Sharon was rushed to hospital late on January 4, 2006, the Jewish state underwent dramatic changes that would probably surprise the veteran leader were he to emerge from his coma today.

Less than four months before his stroke, Sharon orchestrated Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Today the Israeli army is holding to a tenuous truce with fighters in the coastal strip after a five-month operation launched after the capture of an Israeli soldier.

In 1982 Sharon was defence minister during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, a war that ultimately cost him his job after Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila camps were massacred by Lebanese militiamen as Israeli troops stood by. Six months after he fell into a coma, Israel again attacked its northern neighbour, fighting a deadly 34-day war with the Shiite Hizbollah, and public anger with the inconclusive campaign has sent his successor Ehud Olmert’s ratings plummeting.

“People are saying that if Sharon was in office we wouldn’t have had the Lebanon crisis,” political analyst David Nachmias told AFP. Israelis constantly compare Olmert with Sharon, said the professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

“People feel that nobody can fill the vacuum that has been created since he got in his terrible situation.” Sharon’s trailblasing vision of setting Israel’s permanent borders by pulling back from parts of the West Bank following the Gaza withdrawal — initially the mantle inherited by Olmert — has today been abandoned in the ashes of the Lebanon war.

A maverick former army general known as the “Bulldozer” as much for his style as his physique, Sharon was rushed to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital late last January 4 from his ranch in the southern Negev desert, after feeling ill. Doctors later said that he had suffered a stroke, his second in less than a month. He never regained consciousness and in May was moved to the Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv, where the 78-year-old remains in a coma today.

The health crisis of a man who towered over Israeli politics for decades sparked fears that his departure from the stage would cause political turmoil in Israel and the wider Middle East.

But the government adapted to life without him under Olmert, first as acting premier and then as prime minister.

Olmert took the reins of the Kadima Party that Sharon formed just six weeks before his health crisis, which went on to make history in March as the first new party to win the first general elections it contested.

But saddled with a poor turnout at the polls and an image falling far short of Sharon’s, Olmert managed to win only 29 of the 120 seats in parliament, forcing him to stitch together a potentially fractious coalition.

Nevertheless, Sharon’s legacy had already redrawn the political landscape in Israel. While the outgoing parliament was dominated by his right-wing Likud Party, after the March elections the map shifted towards the centre under his aegis.

Olmert had said he was determined to use his mandate to pull tens of thousands of settlers out of the occupied West Bank and continue the policy forged by Sharon by disengaging from the Gaza Strip.

But with the summer war with Hizbollah and continuing rocket fire from Gaza triggering fierce opposition criticism of unilateral actions, the plan is now dead in the water.

The inconclusive war on Hizbollah — which ended without achieving its main objectives of stopping rocket fire or freeing two captured Israeli soldiers — coupled with scandals involving senior government figures, has also sent the ratings of Olmert’s government into a nosedive.

“Sharon managed to cultivate a great trust. There is no one to replace him, to replace his authority,” said Nachmias.

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