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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 January 2006, 13:24 GMT
Key players: Politics after Sharon
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was widely expected to win Israel's election on 28 March, but his anticipated departure from the political scene has turned attention to other key figures.

EHUD OLMERT, acting Israeli prime minister, Kadima party

Olmert
Sixty-year-old Ehud Olmert has been Ariel Sharon's closest political ally for most of the past decade and is the politician most likely to continue his legacy.

Like Mr Sharon, the former right-wing Jerusalem mayor has shifted ideologically to the centre, and was the first politician to follow Mr Sharon in defecting from the Likud party to Kadima.

He has been Mr Sharon's point man, often floating ideas with the public before they became policy.

Mr Olmert once backed Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza, but now believes Israel can secure its future as a democratic state with a Jewish majority only by withdrawing from parts of the West Bank.

Despite a wealth of political experience, Mr Olmert lacks Mr Sharon's charisma and popularity among the Israeli public, and did not have an illustrious military career.

TZIPI LIVNI, foreign and justice minister, Kadima party

Tzipi Livni
Next to Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni is the politician most likely to succeed Mr Sharon as leader of the Kadima party.

Seen as a rising star in Israeli politics, Ms Livni has experienced a meteoric ascent, having become an MP only in 1999.

Ms Livni became immigration minister in 2002, before being appointed justice minister by Mr Sharon in 2004.

A long-time Likud activist, Ms Livni quit the party to follow Mr Sharon into Kadima in December 2005.

She was appointed Israel's foreign minister in January 2006 by Mr Olmert in a cabinet reshuffle, becoming only the second woman in Israel's history to hold the portfolio.

A former lawyer for Israel's secret service, Mossad, Ms Livni hails from a prominent nationalist family - her father was a key member of the pre-state Jewish underground movement, the Irgun.

Ms Livni supported Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and believes Israel must unilaterally set its own borders.

The 47-year-old is widely popular among Israelis, but critics say she lacks a solid political base.

BINYAMIN NETANYAHU, Likud party leader

Netanyahu
A former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, 56, was for years Mr Sharon's main political rival in the Likud party.

Articulate, ambitious and a masterful communicator, Mr Netanyahu reclaimed the helm of the party following Mr Sharon's departure at the end of last year, vowing to restore its traditional right-wing ideology.

An arch-hawk, Mr Netanyahu fiercely opposed the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians and the concept of land for peace.

He served as foreign then finance minister in Mr Sharon's cabinet, before quitting in protest at Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr Netanyahu has also hinted that he would not rule out a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities if he was re-elected.

However, with Israeli opinion shifting to the centre mapped by Mr Sharon, Mr Netanyahu is widely seen as having become increasingly out-of-touch with the electorate, and recent opinion polls put the Likud party in third place under his leadership.

SHIMON PERES, Kadima party

Peres
Israel's elder statesman and Nobel peace laureate, Shimon Peres is perhaps the most experienced Israeli politician, having held every major ministerial post, including that of prime minister twice.

A former ideological rival of Mr Sharon, Mr Peres has long advocated negotiations with the Palestinians and the necessity of making territorial concessions in return for peace.

Mr Peres led a Labour party that propped up Mr Sharon's beleaguered coalition government to help push through the withdrawal from Gaza, but quit the party after losing the leadership late last year to Amir Peretz.

Afterwards, Mr Peres joined Mr Sharon's Kadima party and has vowed to continue Mr Sharon's policies.

However, Mr Peres has never contested and won an election as party leader, and as he is 82 years old, his political future is at best uncertain.

SHAUL MOFAZ, defence minister, Kadima party

Mofaz
Next to Ariel Sharon, Shaul Mofaz, 57, is one of the most trusted and admired Israeli politicians.

A former chief of staff, Mr Mofaz took a hard line towards dealing with the Palestinian uprising, approving air strikes against Palestinian militants, incursions and house demolitions.

He became defence minister in 2003 and pushed for the expulsion from the Palestinian territories of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, although this was never carried out.

Nevertheless, Mr Mofaz supported Mr Sharon's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and has even said negotiations with the Palestinian militant group Hamas would be possible if it renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist.

Mr Mofaz quit Likud and joined Kadima in December 2005, a day after suggesting he would not leave the party.

AMIR PERETZ, Labour party leader

Amir Peretz
Amir Peretz assumed the leadership of the Labour party in November 2005 in a surprise victory over Shimon Peres.

Born in Morocco in 1953, Mr Peretz became the first Sephardi Jew and trade union chief to head the traditionally Ashkenazi-dominated party.

A political dove, Mr Peretz's first move was to pull the party out of Mr Sharon's coalition government, precipitating the national elections scheduled for March.

He has vowed to serve the interests of the poorer sections of Israeli society, but Mr Peretz has never held a ministerial post and this inexperience means he could lack popular appeal at the ballot box.

SILVAN SHALOM, Likud party

Silvan Shalom
A Tunisian-born Sephardi Jew, Silvan Shalom emigrated to Israel in 1959 and entered politics relatively late, joining the Knesset as a Likud member in 1992.

He spent two years as finance minister from 2001, but came to be identified with the worst economic crisis in Israel's history.

In a surprise move, Mr Shalom, 47, was appointed foreign minister by Ariel Sharon in 2003, in an attempt by the prime minister to sideline Binyamin Netanyahu.

An aspiring Likud leader, Mr Shalom lost December's party primary to Mr Netanyahu but Mr Shalom is the only other senior Likud politician to remain with the party rather than leave to join Kadima.

Mr Shalom quit Mr Olmert's caretaker government along with three other remaining Likud ministers on Mr Netanyahu's orders in January 2006.

He was a lukewarm supporter of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and advocates negotiations rather than unilateral steps.




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