Israeli politics have seen few transformations as remarkable as Ariel Sharon’s.
A little more than four years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Sharon as foreign minister, many Israelis were outraged that the man they considered the villain of the 1982 Lebanon War was to be Israel’s face abroad.
When Sharon was appointed interim Likud leader after Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak, few thought the septuagenarian would be more than a caretaker. Yet Sharon solidified his hold on the party and in February 2001 swept Barak out of office, capping a two-decade climb from ignominy to power.
Now the former bete noire of Israeli politics has become the first prime minister to win re-election since Menachem Begin in 1981.
Sharon’s success is attributed to his personal qualities, his performance during his first term and, paradoxically, voters’ despair over the state of the nation, something that rarely redounds to the incumbent’s credit.
In 2001, running for election during the nascent Palestinian intifada, Sharon promised voters peace and security. Two years later, Israel is further from peace, demonstrably less safe — and undergoing an economic meltdown.
Yet voters largely do not blame Sharon. He inherited the intifada from Barak, and while both the ferocity of Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s military response have increased markedly under Sharon, most Israelis do not see a realistic alternative.
It helps that Sharon is the last of the generation of the giants, warrior-statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan whose history is synonymous with Israel’s and who always have filled the breach at moments of crisis.
It is perhaps that aura that helped Sharon weather alleged vote-buying and financial scandals that cost Likud several Knesset seats in the election, but didn’t sink Sharon’s candidacy.
Then, too, in contrast to his predecessors, Sharon is a personable and avuncular figure, liked and respected even by his political foes. Unlike Barak and Netanyahu, both considered brilliant but arrogant, Sharon has surprised Cabinet colleagues and military officials with his willingness to solicit advice and follow it.
For someone nicknamed “the bulldozer,” Sharon proved flexible and deliberate during his first term.
He repeatedly rejected the hard-line proposals of his government’s more hawkish members, effectively giving the Labor Party veto power over military decisions in order to preserve the national unity that he considered essential in time of war.
Much of the world accuses Sharon of brutality in his response to Palestinian terrorism, but many believe he moved rather slowly in intensifying Israel’s military actions. Often he showed restraint — such as after the June 2001 bombing of Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco — when opponents expected Sharon to reveal his “true colors” as a warmonger.
In part, Sharon knew he would gain by being patient intuiting, correctly, that if given another chance the Palestinians would supply another outrage, and the case for Israeli retaliation would be even stronger.
Sharon’s patience also was born of his experience as defense minister two decades ago. Accused of having engineered a “war of choice” in Lebanon, Sharon knew he had to painstakingly build public support before launching bold military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Sharon quickly accelerated Israel’s policy of assassinating terrorists, and critics accused him of fanning the embers of war. But Sharon waited more than a year in office before ordering a large-scale invasion of the West Bank last April, an event that decisively transformed the intifada by throwing the Palestinians on the defensive.
And even after two years in office, Sharon has not ordered a similar large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, where fighting in densely populated areas likely would entail heavy civilian casualties. He also has resisted numerous calls — and, reportedly, his own desire — to exile Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, fearing that it would antagonize the United States.
Beyond the remarkable degree of unity he maintained at home, the greatest accomplishment of Sharon’s first term surely was the rapport he established with Washington, which has remained as Israel’s sole significant ally in an increasingly hostile international environment.
By his handling of the Karine-A arms smuggling affair and the trove of P.A. documents uncovered during Israeli raids in the West Bank, Sharon convinced President Bush of Arafat’s personal role as a sponsor of terrorism.
That led to Bush’s landmark June 24 speech, in which he effectively endorsed Sharon’s position that peace with the Palestinians is not possible as long as Arafat remains in power — with all the policy implications that entails.
By promising Bush early in his term that he would not harm Arafat physically, Sharon set himself a daunting task: to effectively kill his long-time antagonist without actually doing so.
That leaves Sharon trying to calibrate the precise amount of military, economic and diplomatic pressure that will convince the world community, and the Palestinians themselves, that Arafat is detrimental to Palestinian welfare and must be replaced.
Paradoxically, however, Sharon’s strength may prove to be his undoing. Critics say his refusal to budge in the face of Palestinian attacks masks an inability to envision a long-term solution to the crisis.
Sharon argues that the solution is not in Israel’s hands — it can’t make peace as long as the Palestinians don’t accept Israel’s existence, as many Israelis believe but the public may eventually despair and choose a leader offering “peace now” or “separation now,” or some other proposal that presents a semblance of hope in dark times.
Then, too, the anticipated U.S.-led war on Iraq may change the regional landscape to Sharon’s disadvantage. Experience has shown that favors from the Arabs often are repaid in shekels — that is to say, in the form of U.S. pressure for Israeli concessions.
Postwar pressure on Israel to withdraw troops from the West Bank, or to begin dismantling West Bank and Gaza settlements, could expose fundamental faults in Sharon’s entente with Washington.
In addition, Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna’s vow not to enter a national unity government assuming he honors it places Sharon in a difficult spot.
While the decision probably cost Labor several seats in Tuesday’s election, it also could leave Sharon with few options except a narrow right-wing government.
Given Sharon’s reluctance to take extreme measures against the Palestinians, a right-wing coalition appears highly unstable, raising the specter of more elections in the not-too-distant future.
If that happens, even a survivor like Sharon may find that his time has run out. It’s one thing to approach elections with the Labor Party fragmented and — having shared responsibility for government policy until a few months ago — unable to present a compelling alternative.
Another round of elections after Labor has gathered its bearings in the opposition — and the public has stewed in more terrorism and recession — could be another matter entirely.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.