January 8, 2006 | New York Daily News

On Israel’s Horizon

By: Richard Z. Chesnoff.

Most everyone is observing a respectful period of concern and national prayer, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's crippling stroke has turned the Israeli political scene into a desperate behind-the-scene battle for power. The brutal truth: For the moment there is no one who can easily slip into the leadership shoes left empty by this charismatic warrior/statesman.

Who are the chief candidates to succeed Sharon?

EHUD OLMERT: Shrewd, tough and personally disliked by many Israelis, 60-year old Olmert is respected nonetheless for his political acumen. He also has two strong psychological and political advantages. The onetime mayor of Jerusalem is Sharon's handpicked acting prime minister, and if Israel's next elections take place as scheduled in March, he will be the incumbent when voters go to the polls.

Olmert has also been one of Sharon's closest political associates in recent years – serving as chief balloon floater for some of Sharon's most revolutionary ideas, most specifically the daring plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. A lawyer and a fluent English-speaker, this reformed super hawk now has the task of convincing Israeli voters that with him as its leader, the recently born Kadima Party has a future and a meaningful platform of peace and security.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Though recent polls still show Kadima and Olmert in the lead, some analysts believe that 57-year-old Netanyahu, the American-educated former Israeli premier, ultimately has the inside track on forming a new government. Netanyahu, who was in heated internal battle with Sharon and Olmert even before they bolted from the right-wing Likud bloc, now heads Likud with its deep roots, tough ideology and efficient party machine – something Kadima has yet to form.

And while his 1996-1999 premiership was not noted for its great successes, his term as minister of finance was – and Israel's economic future weighs heavily on the mind of its voters.

AMIR PERETZ: This 53-year-old son of poor Moroccan immigrants brings a deep understanding of Israel's growing underclass to his new job as head of Israel's Labor Party. But Peretz, a former vegetable farmer, has had little formal education and lacks both the diplomatic polish and security experience that any Israeli statesman requires. A militant socialist, he has also already managed to alienate the party's two most important figures: former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, whom he unseated as Labor's leader and who – like several other leading Labor figures – recently announced his support for Sharon's new Kadima Party. Peretz will try to woo them back, but most likely without success.

If none of the aforementioned succeeds to win the electoral support needed to replace Sharon, there are others within the vibrant Israeli democracy who may come to the fore. Among them: Sharon's Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni or his Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Both enjoy large public followings. And there is a dark horse that I would carefully watch: Dan Meridor, the highly respected 59-year-old Likud leader who dropped out of politics some years back but may yet be lured back.

As we learned after the tragic murder of Yitzhak Rabin a decade ago, even monumental leaders have successors.