The Future of Sharon's Kadima Party

Newspaper columnist Ari Shavit and John Ydstie discuss the future of Israel's newly founded Kadima party. Its prospects were thrown into question by the illness of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Israelis have not yet turned their full attention to March elections. But, Kadima, the political party founded by the now ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has a chance to keep the political center alive in Israel and to hold onto the popularity it enjoyed when Mr. Sharon was in better health. Kadima, which is the Hebrew word for forward is now under the leadership of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He says that if elected, he will continue Mr. Sharon's policies. But where exactly, were Mr. Sharon's policies headed, following the withdrawal from Israeli settlements in Gaza?

Ari Shavit is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. An account of his conversations with Ariel Sharon over the past six years appears in the current New Yorker. Mr. Shavit says the Prime Minister's creation of the new Centrist party Kadima, indicated he had a clear vision of Israel's future, which he was prepared to pursue.

Mr. ARI SHAVIT (Columnist, Israeli Newspaper Ha'aretz): He probably had in mind something quite limited yet significant, of probably evacuating 20 perhaps a bit more settlements in the coming years, within the context of the roadmap. That is, after having some sort of political arrangement with the Palestinians and after seeing some Palestinian reform. Others in his close circles were going for something much more ambitious, probably evacuating 50, 60, 70 settlements. It's not clear that the Sharon was willing to do that.

I personally think that, he would have been more cautious. His basic approach was very cautious, he really believed in time. He really thought that in order to have stability and something resembling peace in this area the Arab world and the Palestinians have to go through something of a transformation and that takes time.

YDSTIE: Before Israelis decide on their next leader, Palestinians are scheduled to head to the polls for Parliamentary elections. The Palestinian vote is expected on Wednesday.

Mr. Shavit says that, if Hamas becomes dominant in Palestinian politics, there is likely to be a resurgence of the Israeli right wing and the Centrist Kadima will be marginalized. But, unlike in past years he says, Israelis now have a wider political spectrum from which to choose leadership, thanks in large part to Ariel Sharon.

Mr. SHAVIT: This is a very promising election campaign in the sense that the Israeli public, the Israeli voters really have a choice between three different options. One is the left wing option presented by Mr. Peretz and that is, to go for a final status agreement, hoping that peace in our time, peace next year is possible.

The next option is really the one offered by Kadima, by the centrist party, which basically says final peace is probably not possible right now but we must deal with occupation in the settlements. And therefore, approach some sort of unilateral approach to deal with this matter.

And you have the right wing option presented by Mr. Netanyahu, which says any concession now, before the Palestinians change, before they truly recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist here, and before they give up terror, any Israeli concession or withdrawal right now will be perceived as defeat, will increase violence, will bring war rather than peace. And therefore, we basically have to enforce democratization on Palestinians and the Arab world and not give territory before that change happens.

These are three interesting, very different options and I think that, they bring the possibility of having a real serious debate in Israel. So, when we have the decision made in late March, we will truly know that the people have spoken. That the Israeli people have made a real sincere decision, which way they want to go. Because this is not just another election campaign, we are going to face here, our historic future. In many ways it's a life and death decision.

YDSTIE: Ari Shavit is author of The General, an Israeli journalist, six years of conversation with Ariel Sharon in the current New Yorker. He's a columnist for the paper Haaretz and spoke from Jerusalem.

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