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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Analysis: Sharon's two legacies
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor

This has been an unusual election campaign. Some Israelis have even called it boring - a strange judgement considering that it looks as if it will produce a government that will attempt to settle the route of Israel's permanent border with the Palestinians.

Kadima election poster
Kadima leads in polls on promises to finish Ariel Sharon's work
The importance of that is hard to ignore, even in a country where life and death issues are the daily bread of politics.

Ahead in the polls is acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

He is a sharply intelligent professional politician with a reputation for arrogance, which may be one reason why he has not been sitting in the seat that Ariel Sharon used to occupy at the cabinet table. Mr Olmert doesn't want to look too big for his boots.

Ariel Sharon, the man many Israelis had come to trust with their future, has been in a coma since he suffered a huge stroke on the 4 January.

Israel's problem is that Mr Sharon's political legacy has two parts - which in many ways directly contradict each other

He had been expected to win Tuesday's election easily.

When he collapsed, some Israelis expected his new centre party Kadima, to go down with him.

But it has stayed well ahead of its rivals in the opinion polls, which have been very consistent.

The only imponderable, which could be significant, is the number of undecided voters.

But assuming the polls are correct, Kadima is doing well for two reasons.

First of all, Mr Sharon did not take voters with him to the political centre. He recognised that they were already there, waiting for someone to support.

Secondly, although he is incapacitated, his presence, reflected by his image and his political legacy, has dominated the Kadima campaign.

The strategy works - Kadima has been winning votes on a promise that it will finish his work.

Changing tactics

But Israel's problem is that Mr Sharon's political legacy has two parts - which in many ways directly contradict each other.

The first is the principle that some Jewish settlements in occupied territory are a burden for Israel and must go.

Polls open 0700-2200 (0500-2000 GMT)
5 million eligible voters
31 parties contesting 120 seats
Proportional representation system with country acting as one constituency
Voters vote for a party list rather than an individual

It was established by Ariel Sharon when he pulled Israeli soldiers and settlers out of the Gaza Strip last August. The principle is popular and it is part of Sharon's legacy that is winning Kadima votes.

But the other legacy was created in the early part of Sharon's political career. It is the settlements themselves.

Throughout his time as a soldier and then as a politician, Ariel Sharon had one obsession - making Israelis as safe and as possible. That never wavered, up until the moment that he had his stroke.

But what changed were his tactics, which is why he has left Israel a complicated political legacy that is going to cause some serious arguments.

Palestinian birth-rate

For most of his political career Mr Sharon believed that settling Jews on occupied land was the right way to make Israel bigger and stronger.

For him, the Zionist logic was perfect. Possessing what many Israelis believe is the mountain heartland of the Jewish people, permanently, would strengthen Israel's defences and expand its frontier.

If Palestinians believe that Israel is securing its own future at the expense of theirs... then the pressures of population and poverty in the territories will, inexorably, produce more violence
But in the last few years, gradually rather than suddenly, he changed his mind. The view from the prime minister's chair, he was fond of saying, is different.

When he first sat in it, he had to deal with the violent Palestinian uprising. He set about crushing Israel's Palestinian enemies, as he always had, but it must also have been clear that he could not make them go away.

Men with guns never frightened Mr Sharon, but the sight of Palestinian mothers with babies was much more alarming.

Israelis call it the demographic problem, but what it means is that Palestinians have more children than they do.

New logic

The dream of the Israeli right was to possess all the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

The West Bank Palestinians would become like their cousins who stayed in what is now Israel after it was created in 1948 - a potentially difficult minority who would nonetheless get a vote and a passport.

But gradually Mr Sharon, and many others, realised that their dream was flawed.

The Palestinians were having so many babies that soon they would be the majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Israel's baby nightmare was the prospect of Arabs outvoting Jews in an Israeli election.

So a new logic emerged - lose the outlying settlements, and pull back behind a secure border that enclosed the biggest settlements that are closest to Israel.

Do it without consulting the Palestinians, because they could not be trusted and because negotiations slow everything down. On Tuesday, Israelis get a chance to approve the strategy at the polls.

Fixing borders

But that leaves the other part of Mr Sharon's legacy - the settlements on remote hilltops that until now have been a top financial and military priority for Israel.

If he intended to remove some of them, he was struck down by illness before he could even explain the size of the job to his people, let alone start it.

And if some settlements are to go, will their residents leave quietly?

Mr Sharon, the man who built them, was perhaps the best man to pull them down.

Will his successors be able to do it? Or will they be defeated by the strength of a settler community that Mr Sharon himself did more than anyone else to create?

And what will the Palestinians make of Ehud Olmert's plan to fix Israel's border with them in the next four years?

Mr Olmert's plan will not end the conflict. It will have a profound effect on their lives, and they will not have been consulted about it.

Their belief that Israel wanted Palestinians to capitulate rather than compromise was a major reason why they voted for the Islamists of Hamas in their elections in January.

And if Palestinians believe Israel is securing its own future at the expense of theirs, removing their chance of creating a viable and sovereign state, then the pressures of population and poverty in the territories will, inexorably, produce more violence.

Israel and the Palestinians



Palestinian women sit on a roof top of the home of a Palestinian family in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on 20 November 2006. Human shields
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