Once again, Ariel Sharon has personally upended the Israeli political system. The enormously popular prime minister, who suffered a serious stroke this week, never got around to drawing up a list of candidates for his newly created party, Kadima, or to designating an heir apparent before he fell ill. Kadima was widely expected to coast to victory in the March elections, but the party's survival now depends on the loyalty of members who've been on board for just a few weeks. And forget about figuring out who's now a candidate for prime minister—it might be easier to draw up a list of who isn't. But who actually has a chance to win? Here's a rundown of the handful of candidates who currently seem most likely to wind up on top come March 28.
Acting prime minister
The accidental candidate, and suddenly the favorite. A snap poll of the Israeli public, taken as Sharon was being wheeled out of the operating room, gave Olmert 40 seats in the Knesset—more than enough to keep him in control. The newly minted Kadima leader now finds himself in a situation similar to that of former Prime Minister Golda Meir, who assumed the position temporarily after the sudden death of Labor leader Levi Eshkol in 1969. The unexpected promotion gave the public a chance to adjust its impression of her, and she was elected in her own right a few months later.
If voters are looking for a candidate to keep them on the current course, Olmert may be appealing. He earned his reputation as Sharon's most loyal lieutenant, often helping Sharon by floating his most controversial trial balloons. (Two years ago, Olmert was the first government official to mention unilateral Gaza withdrawal.)
Drawbacks: He has a reputation for arrogance and lacks Sharon 's skillful personal touch. Another potential roadblock: He's been investigated repeatedly for corruption, though never convicted of any crime.
If voters are looking for a squeaky-clean candidate, Livni would seem the most likely choice; beyond her rising-star status within Likud (and now Kadima), the conventional wisdom is that Sharon kept Livni close because her sterling reputation "cleaned" him a bit. Despite her family's legendary Likud roots (her father helped found the party), Livni managed to make the jump to Kadima without alienating her own base of support. She's currently the acting second-in-command, behind Olmert—but if she decides to make a bid for the top spot, she could give him a run for his money.
Drawbacks: One of the biggest hurdles? She's a woman—and it may be psychologically impossible for security-obsessed voters to replace one of the most legendary generals in Israeli history with anyone who lacks serious military credentials. (Livni's also never held one of the big-time Cabinet positions, like finance or foreign minister.)
Defense minister, former IDF chief of staff
Mofaz offers voters serious defense street cred. The longtime Likud minister made the jump to Kadima because he thought he'd never wrest the leadership of Likud from Benjamin Netanyahu; but early reports suggest he's throwing his full support to Olmert.
Drawbacks: One reason Mofaz isn't necessarily out of the running is that he has a tendency to change his mind. He made a public pledge to stay with Likud before jumping ship; the day he announced his switch, many Likud members received a letter he'd written a few days earlier that referred to the party as his "home." (It doesn't help that the enduring image of his announcement is of the flustered defense minister entering the briefing room through a window, supposedly for security reasons.)
Former prime minister
As Shmuel Rosner suggested in his Slate piece on Olmert, Netanyahu could well benefit from the current turmoil. The current head of the now-skeletal Likud party, publicly silent on his reversal of fortune, may be counting on manyKadima voters to return to Likud—and Olmert is a much weaker opponent than Sharon. Netanyahu's political stock may have fallen a bit with his forgettable stint in the top job, which ended in 1999. But a fairly successful run as finance minister in the most recent government gave him enough confidence to challenge Sharon last year for leadership of Likud. He lost. (After resigning his position in protest of this summer's Gaza withdrawal, he was replaced by Ehud Olmert.)
Drawbacks: "Bibi" is—how to put this delicately?—the sort of politician who never seems to miss an opportunity to make a counterproductive career move. His decision to run hard-right and challenge Sharon for leadership of Likud was a driving force behind the split that led to the creation of the front-running Kadima party. If Sharon had stayed put, Netanyahu would probably be the logical candidate to slide into the top spot. As it stands, he's got a race on his hands.
Head of the Labor Party
The Moroccan-born Peretz, a trade union leader and member of the country's traditionally conservative, working-class Sephardi population, shocked observers last year when he beat out Labor stalwart Shimon Peres for leadership of that party.
Drawbacks: Peretz is rumored to speak some Arabic, so he may be able to talk to Israel's neighbors in their own language, but what about its friends? His English skills—increasingly an unofficial requirement for the top spot—have been the subject of intense speculation. (The TV networks have brought on experts to assess his grasp of the language.) Peretz is betting that a conflict-weary public may be ready to focus on domestic concerns. Although he spent a year recuperating from battlefield injuries incurred during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Peretz doesn't have the hard-core security bona fides Israelis may be looking for: The outsider candidate, largely untested on the foreign policy front, is a member of Peace Now, the Israeli pacifist organization.
Vice premier, former prime minister
The former prime minister threw his support behind Sharon, abandoning his decades-long association with the Labor Party after his heartbreaking loss to Peretz and Labor's subsequent withdrawal from the coalition government. Still, the same poll that gave Olmert enough seats to maintain control of the top spot gave a Kadima slate led by Peres even more. But the 82-year-old might have trouble gaining a foothold in the crowded Kadima field, and if he did return to Labor, he'd be out of the running this time around.