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Kinder, gentler Sharon forges huge lead

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 (JTA) – Once reviled as a dangerous warmonger, Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon has amassed a huge lead in public opinion polls before Israel’s Feb. 6 elections on the strength of a remarkable image makeover.

Two decades ago, Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister for not preventing Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies from massacring Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Now, he is running as a kindly, avuncular figure, tough but sensitive, who will be more effective as a peacemaker than incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The apparent transformation is galling to many Israeli leftists, who have no problem accepting that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has matured from terrorist to statesman but continue to demonize Sharon for leading Israel into the Lebanon War in 1982.

The mere suggestion this fall that Barak would invite Sharon into a unity government sparked a wave of hand-wringing among Israelis – and international observers – who portrayed such a union as a death knell for the peace process.

Right-wing and centrist Israelis, however, appear less troubled by Sharon’s past, propelling him to leads of 20 to 30 percentage points over Barak in opinion polls.

Perhaps most remarkable – and most telling about the depth of popular dissatisfaction with Barak – is the fact that Sharon has amassed such support while revealing so little of what he would do in office.

“Only Sharon Will Bring Peace” is his campaign slogan. His campaign jingle, released on Monday, sings of the peace he will bring.

The key to his success, according to friend and foe like, is the vagueness of his platform.

“I have a plan that would bring peace with security,” Sharon proclaims at every public appearance. But like President Nixon with his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, Sharon resists pressure to spell out his plans in detail.

“The violence of the intifada can be ended, without escalating the warfare,” Sharon asserts, referring to Palestinian violence against Israel that has continued for more than three months.

According to a report last week in the Jerusalem Post, Sharon’s blueprint for peace remains the outline he presented to the Palestinians in 1999, when he was foreign minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That plan – under which Israel refused to share Jerusalem, uproot Jewish settlements or withdraw from the Jordan Valley – includes far fewer Israeli concessions than those the Palestinians now reject as insufficient from Barak.

Sharon has ridiculed Barak’s efforts to sign a final peace deal with the Palestinians, believing that the most that can be achieved at this stage is a long- term non-belligerency agreement.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin described the Sharon plan to the Jerusalem Post as “a good plan that I would back – if Israel was negotiating with itself.”

People who read Sharon’s 1999 plan “will know what a tragedy it would be if a dangerous man like Sharon is elected, even if it’s only for a short period of time,” Beilin said.

Barak has challenged Sharon to a series of television debates similar to those in the U.S. presidential elections, but Sharon so far has dodged the invitation.

Likud election strategists explain privately that they see no reason, given their man’s powerful lead in the polls, to put themselves in a situation where Sharon would be pressured to offer specifics.

Increasingly desperate, Barak has been urging audiences to look beyond the outward trappings of the slick Likud campaign to see what he claims is an unrepentant hard-liner beneath.

Controversial, pro-Barak election ads have included images of dead bodies from Sabra and Shatila and others implying that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in late September was responsible for the Palestinian violence and the bloodshed that has followed.

Sharon’s strategists say the attacks appear to be rolling off their candidate’s back without damaging him.

Now 73, Sharon first made his reputation in the 1950s as the father of a commando unit that carried out daring and bloody reprisal raids against Arab terrorists operating out of Jordanian territory.

He distinguished himself as a brilliant strategist in the Sinai campaigns of the 1967 and 1973 wars, but his penchant for innovation and his unwillingness to follow orders is believed to have cost him a chance to become army chief of staff.

The Lebanon War appeared to be Sharon’s downfall, as a government- appointed committee found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and journalists later exposed the extent to which he misled Prime Minister Menachem Begin about his real aims in Lebanon.

Sharon’s behavior in government often contradicted his hard-line reputation, however.

As Begin’s defense minister, he was responsible for evacuating Jewish settlements in the northern Sinai as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

As Netanyahu’s foreign minister, he refused to shake Arafat’s hand, but he helped negotiate the Wye River agreement in October 1998.

In addition, since taking the Likud helm in May 1999, Sharon has proven himself an adept political strategist, rebuilding the morale, organization and finances of a party that Netanyahu left in disarray.

In campaign statements, Sharon speaks of his longing to bring such popular moderates as Dan Meridor and David Levy back to the Likud fold.

Netanyahu remains a major behind-the-scenes player in Likud, throwing the political arena into a frenzy last month when he briefly considered running for prime minister. Relations between the two camps have not been good since Sharon’s campaign got under way.

Netanyahu recently pledged to campaign for Sharon, but sidestepped questions about whether he thought Sharon would make a good prime minister.

Despite their prickly relations, Sharon is mimicking the delicate dance that Netanyahu performed in building and preserving a center-right coalition that had to accept the realities of the Oslo peace process.

On Tuesday, the fervently Orthodox Shas party – the third largest bloc in the Knesset – made the widely expected announcement that it would back Sharon.

Just days earlier, however, Sharon had told Shas chairman Eli Yishai, “Don’t hug me too tightly.”

Though he needs Shas’ support, Sharon cannot afford to be seen as pandering to the Orthodox community, for fear of alienating the large – and largely secular – Russian immigrant constituency.

He also needs to keep some distance from the fervently Orthodox parties and the nationalistic hard-line groups to the right of Likud.

Sharon’s overall strategy, like that of Netanyahu during his 1996 to 1999 term as premier, will be to keep a fine balance among a coalition of the center-right, far-right, Orthodox and Russians. Losing any component of this grouping could threaten his Knesset majority.

Unless, that is, Labor agrees to enter a unity government under Sharon. If Sharon wins, his strategists say at every opportunity, he will offer Barak the powerful post of defense minister.

Granted, Sharon says, Barak has been a failure as prime minister – but he is a good general and a good man.

“Under me – and that’s the key point under me, he’ll be a fine minister of defense.”

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