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News Analysis: from Caretaker to Prime Minister; How Ariel Sharon Won the Election

February 7, 2001
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How did Ariel Sharon do it? How did the 72-year-old opposition leader win the prime ministership when just a few months ago most Israelis would have considered it thoroughly unlikely, given Sharon’s long and controversial career as a maverick military officer and hard-nosed politician?

Sharon was initially seen as a caretaker chairman of the Likud Party, voted into the job by dispirited party faithful following former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defeat and resignation in May 1999.

It was widely believed that Sharon was destined to give up the Likud leadership — and any prime ministerial aspirations — when “Bibi” came back, or when some other bright young hopeful took the helm of the center-right opposition party.

But Sharon himself never saw things that way.

Even in his darkest days — after a commission of inquiry under Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan ordered him ousted from the Defense Ministry following the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian forces at the Sabra and Shatila camps — Sharon continued to believe that he could one day reach the pinnacle of national leadership.

A Danish journalist said he unearthed television footage of an interview Sharon gave in Copenhagen just weeks after his 1983 ouster, in which he was asked about running for prime minister.

“Certainly. Why not?” Sharon replied without hesitation.

As Israeli votes often are a rejection of the incumbent more than an endorsement of the challenger, the first answer to the question of how Sharon won has to be Prime Minister Ehud Barak himself.

Despite its deep rifts, the Israeli electorate collectively turned its back on Barak, whom it had overwhelmingly voted into office just 21 months ago.

As the only candidate running against Barak, Sharon benefited from the mass disillusionment with a leader who promised so much and, much of the public felt, delivered so little.

The last four months of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — which have taken more than 300 Palestinian lives, but also the lives of more than 50 Israelis, most of them civilians — exacerbated voters’ feelings of bitterness and resentment.

Some political observers speak of both sadistic and masochistic undertones in the broad national rejection of Barak.

Voters are dismayed that the peace negotiations with the Palestinians have come to naught — despite the extensive concessions Barak was ready to offer — and they transferred their dismay and anger from the Palestinians to the Israeli leader who failed.

In addition, they have transferred their support to the man who more than any other represents an iron-fist policy against the Arabs, as if to say, “The Palestinians deserve to be punished by Ariel Sharon” — even if they know, deep down, that any such “punishment” may also mean more bloodshed and suffering on the Israeli side.

In the days leading up to the election, when he already appeared resigned to his defeat, Barak spoke privately of a “killing the messenger” syndrome.

Barak is convinced that history will judge him better than his contemporaries do, and that he is being unfairly castigated for having the courage to do what his predecessors didn’t dare: touch the “living heart” of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Barak’s goal was to reach an accord on the core issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators — Jerusalem, settlements and Palestinian refugees – – or, failing that, to expose the Palestinians’ lack of political will and historical sagacity to reach an agreement on these issues now.

Barak believed this was a win-win formula.

If he struck a peace accord, the vast majority of the Israeli public would support him — as opinion polls demonstrated right up to election day.

Yet if he failed, he believed, the people still would rally round him, as the leader representing the broadest common position vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

In the end, however, the Israeli public — infuriated and profoundly shaken by the Palestinians’ rejection of compromise and their turn to violence — did not rally around Barak as he had expected.

Perhaps this was natural — but perhaps another politician would have anticipated it.

Even members of Barak’s own party have accused him of overweening haughtiness and political ineptness.

His relatively brief term in office was marked by defections by coalition parties and individual political allies, leaving him to wage his re-election campaign very much isolated and alone.

The enormous enthusiasm that Barak’s victory generated in May 1999 dried up with mind-boggling rapidity.

His own party lieutenants are plotting to depose him after the elections, having spent the past months vilifying him in countless media leaks as an insensitive autocrat and ineffective diplomat.

Those leaks have permeated the consciousness of ordinary voters.

Perhaps, if the Israeli Arab community had been less determined to boycott Barak — after police killed 13 Arab citizens during riots last October — the Jewish left would have been prepared to swallow its distaste and support him again.

But the Arabs remained determined to demonstrate that they are no longer “in Labor’s pocket.”

Without their votes, Barak was pretty much doomed.

That being the case, many on the left allowed themselves the “luxury” of boycotting Barak as well, or casting blank ballots to show their disillusionment.

With this enormous help from Barak, all Sharon really needed to do was to avoid mistakes.

Closely shepherded by his son, Omri, and a host of American and Israeli election strategists, he accomplished that mission.

A campaign designed to portray him as a benevolent grandfather, with a kiss for every kid and a kind word in Hebrew or Russian for every voter, successfully blurred the more controversial episodes of Sharon’s past.

Chief among these is the Lebanon War.

Barak’s campaign managers believed they could squeeze political mileage out of the prime minister’s withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon last May, contrasting that with the 18 years of military embroilment begun by the invasion of Lebanon that Sharon directed in June 1982.

But the results of that effort were disappointing for Barak, and Sharon’s camp was relieved to find the damage negligible.

Perhaps it’s because the withdrawal has not entirely closed that painful chapter in Israel’s history, given the kidnapping of three soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas in October and the continuing volatility of the border region.

The left is learning, moreover, that the Lebanon war — with its searing memories for those who experienced it — is only a vague memory in books or newspapers for many younger and immigrant voters who did not live through those traumatic times.

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