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Israel's political vacuum

Prime Minister Sharon's sudden absence leaves no major leaders in the nation's political center.

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Israel is facing a political realignment that could reverberate through the entire Middle East for years to come. The health crisis that has removed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the political scene has created a political vacuum that Israelis compare to the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

It comes less than three months before national elections, which Mr. Sharon's new centrist party was expected to dominate. The duties of Israel's prime minister were quickly assumed by Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister, but the political absence of Sharon is casting doubt about the viability of the party he founded as well as any movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"The problem is that there is nobody in any party who has the stature to step into his shoes," says Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute here.

Running under the banner of his Kadima party, Sharon, who fought in or directed every one of Israel's wars since the country's birth in 1948, was expected to easily win a third term as prime minister in the March 28 elections.

With the retirement of longtime Labor leader Shimon Peres in November, Sharon was the last of Israel's original generation of leaders active in politics and the only man the majority of Israelis trusted to run the country, which many here view as in a perpetual fight for its existence.

Since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in August, Sharon had ridden a wave of popularity here which allowed him to throw off the allies-turned-foes in his former Likud party. If given another term as prime minister, Sharon declared in November when he created Kadima, he would seek to "determine the final borders of the state" of Israel.

With Israeli settlers out of Gaza and the continued construction of the separation barrier running through parts of the West Bank, those final contours were beginning to take shape. As his last stamp on the land he has exerted extraordinary influence over during the course of his life, Sharon was expected, either by negotiation with the Palestinians or through further unilateral steps, to see that plan through to fruition.

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