Sharon dominates Israelis’ thoughts

By Dina Kraft, JTA

TEL AVIV — As Israelis work, shop and hang out at cafes, the undercurrent of every conversation is the uncertainty of the country’s future without Ariel Sharon as prime minister.

“There’s no figure who can take his place,” Nir Rosen, 26, of Netanya, said as he waited in line at the airport Thursday to check in for a flight to Italy. “It’s a difficult time for Israel.”

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has taken over Sharon’s powers.

Israelis read the banner newspaper headlines announcing Sharon’s grave condition and watched round-the-clock news broadcasts as a steady stream of doctors and politicians speculated on the possible outcomes of Sharon’s health and the health of the country.

“Struggling for his life,” read the headline in Ma’ariv, and throughout the day rumors swirled that Sharon already had died. Officials at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem made repeated announcements to clarify that while he was in serious condition, the prime minister was still alive.

Israelis were puzzled about more than just the latest bulletins.

“It’s a confusing situation. The country was unified behind Sharon and would have probably voted for him in large numbers,” said Ilan Amir, 50. “Even though he made mistakes, including the war in Lebanon and the corruption scandals, people seemed to forgive him.”

Sharon had been at the height of his popularity in recent months following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer, and he seemed assured of an easy victory for his new party, Kadima, in March 28 elections.

Israelis from all walks of life and political persuasions realized that the entire political map appeared to have changed overnight. Many Israelis craved the stability and strength of Sharon’s leadership and seemed to feel a bit lost after it suddenly had been taken away.

Among those holding out hope was Itay Bootel, 24.

“We are crossing our fingers. He is a national symbol,” Bootel said as he served a customer a sandwich at a caf é.

Yossi Shahar, 41, on his way home after a vacation in Eilat, said it wasn’t easy to imagine Israel without Sharon, but he was certain the country would find its way.

“Israel is not built on one person alone. If we got through the Rabin assassination, we can get through anything,” said Shahar, a government worker.

The sudden uncertainty cast a veil over everything, however.

Sigalit Katz, 38, pushed her toddler son in a stroller through a mall but did not seem to be in the mood for shopping.

“It’s sad for all of us. Again we have plunged into uncertainty. Who will lead us?” she asked.

Until Wednesday, she said, she had planned to vote for Kadima, but now she doesn’t know if she will vote at all.

“People are a bit puzzled and are asking what’s going to happen next,” said Adrian Daniels, a 36-year-old lawyer.

But Daniels was optimistic that Kadima, the party that many have seen as Sharon’s one-man show, would persevere because it represented what Israelis want: a stable centrist voice.

“Kadima represents the zeitgeist, and that does not change with Sharon disappearing,” Daniels said. Now the party has to step up to the plate and articulate a clear platform, he said.

“It’s a chance for them to say, ‘we are a real party with a real policy,’ and if they do that then they will do well,” he said. “I think it’s still a three-horse race.”

Shlomo Wasseteil, 56, a greenhouse owner who was among those Israelis evacuated from the Gaza Strip over the summer, disagrees about Kadima’s future.

Wasseteil said he thinks the party will not be able to push through an agenda of additional withdrawals without Sharon.

“I think we paid a high price, but at least Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank, “will be saved from all this,” he said.

He added of Sharon: “I had respected him. That was the problem. We all had loved him even though he hurt us so deeply.”

Hadassah Ein Kerem, the hospital where Sharon is being treated, has received hundreds of calls and visits from Israel and across the world wishing the prime minister well.

The Jewish Agency for Israel has created an e-mail address for people to send their wishes to the prime minister. The address is [email protected].

A weary looking President Moshe Katsav said he had last spoken to Sharon on Wednesday afternoon.

“All Israeli citizens pray for his health and recovery,” Katsav told Channel Two.

“We need to be optimistic, we need to hope for a miracle,” said Ronit Tirosh, a Kadima member.