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George Mitchell: Netanyahu likely to benefit

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Former Sen. George Mitchell talks to CNN's Soledad O'Brien on Thursday.

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Israel
Ariel Sharon
George Mitchell

(CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke on Wednesday. Whatever his fate, it is bound to reverberate through Israeli politics. Sharon's illness comes just months before a crucial election in March. In that vote, the fate of Sharon's newly formed centrist political party, Kadima, hangs in the balance.

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien talked with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, chairman of an international fact-finding committee on Mideast violence and one of the chief architects of the U.S.-brokered "Road Map to Peace," about the power vacuum in the event of Sharon's death or disablement.

O'BRIEN: First, let's talk about Ariel Sharon. His condition is reported to be very, very bad. If he dies, what happens to his party, the centrist party [ Kadima]?

MITCHELL: Like many other things, unknown at the moment. Clearly it will be hurt. It's a party that was founded largely based on his personality. They've attracted some good and well-known people. No one of his stature exists really in the party or in Israel.

O'BRIEN: His deputy has taken over. His name is Ehud Olmert and he's sort of in charge essentially now. Does he have the force of personality where he could rise up and lead the party as successfully as Ariel Sharon has?

MITCHELL: I think he could. I know him. He's a former mayor of Jerusalem. He's an experienced, well-known political figure. Obviously, in recent years, operating under the shadow of Prime Minister Sharon, but that's a possibility. He will be a strong candidate.

I think he'll be a very effective prime minister if he ever gets there. However, I think the most likely beneficiary is Prime Minister Sharon's rival, former Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu.

O'BRIEN: Who leads the Likud party. [The conservative party founded by Sharon. He left this party to form Kadima.]

MITCHELL: [Netanyahu] stayed with Likud and is now running in the election. It's hard to know because so much is uncertain and people's reactions are immediate and personal. But once they settle down, probably Netanyahu will be a beneficiary.

O'BRIEN: Why do you think Likud and not the Labor party? I'm mentioning basically the parties that sort of could -- would be in the mix of a big power grab.

MITCHELL: Yes, it's a time of great insecurity and anxiety .... in the Middle East, on both sides. You now have instability on the Israeli side. You have a high level of instability on the Palestinian side because of the gains being made by Hamas in the [January 25 Palestinian parliamentary] election, and the difficulty of establishing law and order by the Palestinian Authority, although Palestinian President [Mahmoud] Abbas is obviously working very hard at that.

And so I think people look for security first: strong leaders. What they perceive as strong leaders first.

O'BRIEN: You're referencing all this upheaval essentially in the Palestinian territories. And some Palestinians that they've quoted in news reports have been celebrating his illness. You know, saying it's a gift from God essentially.

And others have said, even though they don't particularly like Sharon, that he's better to us alive than dead. Do you think that's true for the Palestinians?

MITCHELL: Well, of course, they tend to look more at Sharon's record in previous years as opposed to recent years. I spent a lot of time over there. I didn't meet many Israelis who ever thought highly of [the late Palestinian Authority leader Yasser] Arafat, nor did I ever meet many Palestinians that thought highly of Sharon.

These are societies in conflict and therefore they tend not to favor whoever is the leader of the other side.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it's not a shocker that they're celebrating to a large degree. But is he -- are they worse off if everything stops in the middle? Any gains made by the Kadima party?

MITCHELL: I think everyone is worse off because there has been very little momentum in the process until now. Much of it generated by Sharon himself and by President Abbas on the other side.

And the problem is, that the more uncertainty, the greater the likelihood of instability, the more violence I think is likely to follow as people don't see a clear political path to their goals.

O'BRIEN: What about the U.S. policy? Much of the policy has been based on these goals set by Ariel Sharon.

MITCHELL: Well, Israel is a democracy, of course, and they have an established process of selecting the leadership. And the United States policy must be, of course, to respect that.

While I think it will be a setback, particularly the president and Mr. Sharon have had a good relationship, I don't think the United States policy is based on any one person, particularly when dealing with democratic societies where we respect the right of the people of Israel to select their leaders in accordance with their laws.

O'BRIEN: Well, I guess we'll all watch and wait and really just see the fallout.

MITCHELL: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Senator George Mitchell, nice to see you and check in with you, as always.

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