Sharon’s One-Man Show Eclipses Opposition

Ariel Sharon’s dozen years in the political wilderness – plus the bitter sniping suffered by his ten predecessors as Israeli prime minister – taught him some basic math: The best way to downsize your parliamentary opposition is to upsize your coalition government. Straight after his landslide election victory in February 2001, Sharon rolled up his sleeves and constructed a bumper coalition government, declaring the country needed a national unity administration to take on the spiraling Palestinian terror. The result: 25 more or less biddable ministers, a bevy of deputy ministers, depleted opposition benches and a frustrated country with little voice in policy-making.
Sharon, who at 74 has evolved from bellicose general to paternalistic politico, has not changed fundamentally from his early days in politics. In 1973, as a novice, he helped form the merger called Likud that brought Menahem Begin to power four years later. To this day, he retains his penchant for large political blocs, together with his predilection for close collaboration with Washington. In 1981, as Begin’s defense minister, he concluded Israel’s first strategic cooperation agreement with the United States.
But in 1982 he fell flat on his face, bearing the scars of that bungle to the present day.
Carried away by a brilliant victory over the Palestinian legions in Lebanon, he disregarded the US president of the day, Ronald Reagan, and marched the Israeli army for the first time into the heart of an Arab capital, Beirut. For this misjudgment, Sharon was forced out of the defense ministry and hurled off the political stage.
Now, having been recalled to office by a despairing and fearful electorate, prime minister Sharon is careful never to budge an inch away from the dotted line laid down by President George W. Bush with regard to the Palestinian conflict and national foreign and defense policy at large. From Sharon’s perspective, his reward of all-out White House backing benefits the country in three ways:
1. He has been allowed to outplay Yasser Arafat, whom he considers a threat to Israel’s survival, at the diplomatic game, isolating and downgrading him as Palestinian national leader, while also effectively voiding the Oslo peace accords the rival Labor signed with Arafat when its leaders were in office in 1993. This he considers redresses a fatal error his Likud has always decried.
While criticized in different quarters variously for failing to liquidate, expel, prosecute and negotiate with the Palestinian leader, Sharon believes that Arafat’s removal from the Middle East and international scene is but a step away, part of Washington’s new post-Saddam order.
Sharon has parlayed his understanding with President Bush – and the efforts of two Israel chiefs of staff, Lt. General Shaul Mofaz and Lt. General Moshe Yaalon – to extinguish the “al Aqsa Intifada” Arafat declared two years ago and dispel the Palestinian dream of imminent independence. The US president has come round to accepting the prospect of a shrunken Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip enclave, with a nominal Palestinian presence on the West Bank subject to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. For the Palestinians, this prospect is more a nightmare than a dream. For Sharon, it is his second victory over Arafat.
2. Sharon expects great strategic advantages from America’s coming campaign against Iraq. Syria and the Hizballah may be drawn into the conflict, as well as one or more additional Arab state which feels bound to challenge America’s program to redesign the national, geographic and ethnic boundaries of the Middle East – a process first outlined by debkafile last May. The Israeli prime minister’s prognosis is that Israel’s Arab neighbors will be reduced and stripped of their weapons of mass destruction – not just Iraq and Syria, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s immediate environment will be improved by the rise of friendly autonomous or semi-autonomous national entities, such as Iraq’s Kurds and Turkomen – and even Qatar and Kuwait, who will venture to come out from the Saudi and Iraqi shadows.
Sharon therefore foresees Israel’s geopolitical and strategic situation being transformed by the new Middle East vision articulated in Washington, an achievement unequalled by any Israeli leader since David Ben Gurion led Israel in its war of independence.
This is the ace Sharon keeps up his sleeve and he does not propose to share it with anyone. He runs alone, but because the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem is so closely in tune with the Oval Office, he has the inside track, easily outpacing his critics – and not them alone. His own nationalist Likud colleagues are kept in the dark as much as his left-of-center Labor partners in government – not to speak of the ultra-leftwing groups, which rely for much of their support on foreign patrons, mostly in Europe. This head start also gives him an edge over his main Likud challenger, the popular former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
3. With so much going for him, Sharon believes he deserves to scoop the next election at the end of 2003 and enjoy his re-election as prime minister in the new Middle East.
However, more than one part of the electorate is far from enchanted with his solo performance. They feel that the nation, government ministers, court judges, administrators, businessmen, bankers, academics and even the media are being treated by their prime minister as so many troops to be deployed in his tough but very personal war. As commander in chief, he calls for unquestioning self-sacrifice, forbearance and a brave face on the hardships “we are all experiencing”. Those hardships include deathly spasms of terrorism, a sinking standard of living, soaring unemployment, inaction against spreading corruption in the body politic and the virtual suspension of inter-political activity.
For the last failing, he is not solely to blame. He shares it with his natural opposition, the liberal left, whose leading lights, such as Yossi Beilin, Haim Ramon and Amram Mitzna, dig their own graves by their fixation on the Palestinian case, rather than the plight of their own countrymen.
This faction therefore suffers from dwindling popular support in a country crying out for a worthy opposition that cares for its needs and keeps the government on the mark.
There is no one in Israeli politics to day willing and able to challenge Sharon to a serious national debate on whether America’s long-term strategic goals for the Middle East are automatically apposite for Israel. Does it suit Israel’s long-term interests, for instance, to instate Jordanian rule in the West Bank and face Amman’s inevitable demand to extend its jurisdiction to Temple Mount and parts of historic Jerusalem?
This dearth of challengers applies also to the list of the prime minister’s most significant rivals:
Binyamin Netanyahu: His political agenda is predicated on Sharon fumbling the Palestinian question and re-igniting full-scale terrorism. A major revival of Palestinian terror is certainly possible, especially in the most intense stages of the American campaign against Saddam Hussein, but its outcome in Jerusalem’s corridors of power will be pre-determined by Sharon and Washington together – not left to chance. Netanyahu will not be handed the prime minister’s office on a platter. His prospects were not enhanced by his admiring wife’s comment in a New Year’s press interview that her husband is too big for Israel, which was generally taken as an expression of Bibi’s own view of self.
Ehud Barak: The Labor prime minister overthrown by Sharon is a bizarre mix of a little Sharon plus a lot of Netanyahu. Like Sharon, he trusted on a cordial relationship with an American president to buttress his regime, except that he chose the wrong president. Bill Clinton’s eight years in the White House are often seen in retrospect as a dead and gone period which led America blindfold to the 9/ll calamity. The Clinton-Barak duo’s handling of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians is seen in Israel as a powerful detonator of the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But when advised to voice some regrets for actions he took as prime minister, Barak haughtily refuses. His former advisers recall that as prime minister he was wont to weigh advice offered him according to a single yardstick: How would he look in the history books?
Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer: Less pretentious than Netanyahu and Barak, the defense minister (who is also Labor leader) is fond of asserting that unforeseen political circumstances might yet put him in the prime minister’s seat. Not many share his belief. He has successfully survived the past two years by low-grade maneuvering between Sharon, the veteran Labor leader and foreign minister Shimon Peres and three Labor hopefuls, MK Haim Ramon, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. But the only real projects or programs he has attempted – the handover of the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem to the Palestinians in return for a truce – broke down before it started.

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