Ariel Sharon’s foes are trying to make political hay out of an interview with the opposition leader that appeared in this week’s issue of The New Yorker Magazine.
In the interview – most of which was conducted last fall, before Sharon launched his campaign for prime minister – Sharon refers to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a “murderer and a liar” and describes him as a “bitter enemy.”
The article appears in the middle of a campaign for Israel’s Feb. 6 election, in which Sharon is portraying himself as a moderate who will bring Israel peace and security.
Indeed, author Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that when he spoke to Sharon last week, the Likud leader was “more cautious in his public pronouncements” than when the bulk of the interview was first conducted.
Sharon’s political opponents seized on the interview as revealing the Likud Party candidate’s true ideological bent.
The interview “speaks for itself, for anyone who thought Sharon had changed,” Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s campaign said in a statement.
Barak also was interviewed for the article, but it was Sharon’s comments that drew the most attention in Israel.
At the time most of the interview was conducted, Sharon may not have anticipated his candidacy.
Many Likudniks were pinning their hopes on a political comeback by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu dropped his bid, and Sharon subsequently was chosen as the Likud candidate.
In his first public reaction to the interview, Sharon said Monday that if elected he would conduct negotiations with Arafat – as he has in the past – but based on different proposals than those favored by Barak.
Sharon, the front-runner in election opinion polls, has accused Barak of a willingness to make far-reaching concessions, including granting the Palestinians control over parts of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, foregoing an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
Barak has repeatedly denied that he is willing to make such concessions.
It was not immediately clear whether the New Yorker article would provide Barak with sufficient ammunition to make up the deficit in the polls.
In what could provide another boost for Barak’s campaign, leaders of a movement to replace Barak with Cabinet minister Shimon Peres as the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister announced Monday that they are stopping their campaign.
The movement’s leaders said the effort has only helped Sharon by splitting the “peace camp.”
At the same time, they said they remain convinced that Peres is the stronger candidate to oppose Sharon.
Peres – who has denied any direct involvement in the “Draft Peres” effort – told an Israel Radio reporter he unequivocally supports Barak’s candidacy.