JERUSALEM, Feb 23 (Reuters) Even though Ariel Sharon lies comatose in hospital, his plan for redrawing Israel's political map is moving ahead unchecked.
The Kadima party that Sharon formed just weeks before his massive stroke on January 4 has a commanding lead ahead of a March 28 general election, far in front of the right-wing Likud party that the prime minister ditched as too extreme.
The success of Kadima, whose name means ''forward'', derives from a yearning among Israeli voters for an alternative to the Likud and the centre-left Labour Party that dominated politics in the Jewish state for decades, political analysts say.
Kadima's platform is one of trying to end conflict with the Palestinians and to set final borders for Israel, either through talks or through unilateral measures to separate from the Palestinians.
''Kadima reflects the deeper change that has taken place in the Israeli public during the last few years and that is a movement toward the centre, avoiding radical approaches either on the left or the right,'' said political analyst Ephraim Yaar.
Kadima has benefited from the mystique of Sharon, a battle-hardened former general from Israel's founding generation who cultivated a no-nonsense grandfather-of-the-nation image before the stroke that left him in a coma.
But latest polls still show Kadima holding steady at around 40 seats in the 120-seat parliament under the leadership of Ehud Olmert, a politician never widely seen as prime ministerial material until he stepped in after Sharon's collapse.
''It's almost metaphysical that Ehud Olmert, whom nobody ever thought well of, has suddenly been reincarnated from the empty seat of Sharon,'' said pollster Avi Degani.
''I think there is a psychological issue. The expectations that went into Kadima and the hopes for the party moved to him and he began to act accordingly,'' he added.
Kadima's main rivals Labour and Likud, lolling in the polls with around 19 and 13 seats respectively, are showing no sign of gaining momentum five weeks before the election.
KADIMA HOLDS COURSE DESPITE HAMAS VICTORY Kadima's standing has not been hurt by the victory of the militant Islamist group Hamas in a Palestinian parliamentary election last month -- something that not long ago might have pushed Israeli voters into the arms of Likud.
Political analysts said this was due to a shift among Israelis to favouring ''disengagement'' from the Palestinians by removing some settlements in the occupied West Bank.
''The average Israeli wants 'peace without Arabs'. Kadima's 'unilateral' approach reflects this position precisely,'' said Uri Avnery, a left-wing activist and political commentator.
Meanwhile, Israelis have lost faith in Labour, which many now see as incapable of uniting the country behind any major land concessions, analysts said.
Labour's decline began when a Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, making its dovish peacemaking policy less appealing to many Israelis.
Sharon quit Likud to form Kadima in November, complaining the party was being held hostage by ultranationalists who would block removing more settlements in the West Bank following his withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year.
Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war and Palestinians want both territories for a state.
Sharon was for decades a champion of Israel's settlement drive, but later came to believe that Israel should set borders based on geopolitical and demographic considerations even if that meant uprooting settlers.
As part of his ultimate plan, isolated Jewish settlements that have been among the most exposed to the conflict would be removed while the biggest blocs would remain -- with U.S. approval.
Palestinians believe that the idea is a grab for occupied land that would deny them a viable state by keeping their cities cut off from each other by settlements and settler roads.
ACHILLES' HEEL The fact that Olmert has made plain he would support such a plan has helped keep Kadima ahead. A wily politician, he has projected the image of an experienced leader pursuing Sharon's legacy. Posters of Sharon act as backdrops at Kadima events.
According to pollsters, Likud has won few points with its attempts to stop Kadima's advance by accusing Olmert of being soft on Hamas and focusing on his lack of military experience -- he was a journalist in an army newspaper.
Olmert is also fortunate that his rivals have their own Achilles' heels.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, politically wounded for many Israelis from his time as a belt-tightening finance minister, is perceived as a scaremonger with a poor record on Hamas.
Netanyahu let Hamas' spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin out of jail in 1997 after ordering an embarrassing botched assassination of the movement's leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan.
Labour's new leader, former trade union chief Amir Peretz, has made little impression on voters who see him as inexperienced and unqualified to deal with security matters.
But history shows that the unexpected can always have a big impact in Israeli election campaigns. A Palestinian suicide bombing campaign before a 1996 election helped Likud defy pre-election odds and beat Labour.
''If there is no major event that would have a dramatic or fundamental effect on the public, then I think what we see now (in the polls) we will see in (five) weeks from today,'' Yaar said.
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