Long shadow of absent Sharon looms over Israeli elections

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The Independent Online

It's hardly surprising that Moti Malamud, every inch the moshavnik with his close-cropped hair, Levi workshirt, blue jeans and trainers, has never doubted that he will be voting Kadima in Israel's general election on Tuesday. For Ariel Sharon, the man who founded the party five months ago, has been part of his life for more than 70 years.

Born in the same year, they attended the same local school; they worked the fields together as children; they were in the same Haganah unit carrying out daring guerrilla operations in the Forties; they were on the same battlefield at Latrun in 1948 when "he was wounded and I, thank God, was OK".

Mr Sharon stayed in the army, of course, before he eventually went on to become Prime Minister. Mr Malamud came back to the moshav (a community where the land is farmed in individually owned plots rather than collectively, as in a kibbutz). Afterwards they stayed in touch, meeting two or three times a year until Mr Malamud went to Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital after Mr Sharon's stroke in January to find his old comrade was too ill to see him.

Though he is no political activist, Mr Malamud has put up a Kadima poster outside his house. That it is the only election material of any kind in Kfar Mlal attests to a wider quietness, apathy even, about this election which nearly every Israeli commentator has noted. By contrast, he says, "at the last election [in 2003] there were posters everywhere".

One reason for that may be that the absence from the campaign of the man Mr Malamud, 77, is really voting for. For even as he lies in a coma in the Hadassah, the desperately ill Mr Sharon remains the dominant figure in this election. The party that he founded in 2005 after breaking away from Likud remains way ahead in the polls. And the bitterest argument of the election, that between Benjamin Netanyahu, leading Likud, and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima, is over what the Sharon legacy really is.

Mr Sharon's long shadow looms over the whole election, but nowhere more than in Kfar Mlal, where the old warrior grew up with his pioneering parents and where his mother lived until her death. When Mr Malamud says he had "a good past", his less uncritical daughter Michal interrupts him sharply to say: "Not always such a good past." But the Kadima heir apparent Mr Olmert has made little impact on either of them.

But Ms Malamud, who has switched between Labour and Likud in the past, says she is encouraged by the presence in Kadima of Shimon Peres and the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. "I'm happy that that there is a woman in a good position," she says. "The woman's touch is important in negotiations, and I hope she can bring women's issues to the government's attention."

Both are strong supporters of the disengagement from Gaza, though they wonder if Mr Olmert will have the same authority to carry out his intention of further withdrawals from the West Bank. But his daughter is especially unequivocal about the need for these to happen. "I don't mind uprooting the settlements and getting out from Judaea and Samaria [the West Bank]," she says. "It's a good option. We want peace and for our children not to have to go into the army."

Mr Malamud believes that while 90 per cent of Kfar Mlal residents are Labour supporters, "maybe 20 to 30 per cent will vote Kadima this time". He is predictably critical of the call by Labour's leader, Amir Peretz, for a $1,000 (£575) a month minimum wage as "too expensive" and a handicap to Israel's capacity to compete globally. "People think he doesn't have enough experience of security. And he was always for the workers: he was responsible for many strikes [as leader of the Histadrut union organisation]."

Nationally, the poll rating for Labour, the only one of the big three parties unequivocally still pursuing negotiations with Palestinians, improved last week to a projected 21 seats. But it still remains unclear whether Mr Olmert, if he fulfils all the predictions by winning on Tuesday, will bring it into his coalition. Some analysts have speculated that he could turn instead not only to the ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, but also to Avigdor Lieberman's hard-right Yisrael Beteinu [Israel Our Home], whose popularity with 900,000 voters from the former Soviet Union is proving one of the surprises of the campaign, and could yet deliver him 10 seats or more. Mr Lieberman has provoked charges of "fascism" by proposing that the border be changed to strip up to 500,000 Israeli Arabs of their citizenship and make them Palestinians at the stroke of a pen.

For Mr Malamud, however, none of the major active players holds a candle to the old and absent friend. "People trust him," he says. "He has always tried to do good things for the people. I always say: Sharon can do."