Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon has been Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s harshest critic during Barak’s 17 months in office, claiming the prime minister was making too many concessions in his quest for peace. Now, three months of Palestinian rioting may have set the stage of Sharon to unseat Barak in elections Feb. 6.
In the battle of the former generals, polls put Sharon as many as 18 points ahead of Barak, 58, who if defeated would be Israel’s shortest-serving prime minister.
The thought of Sharon, 72, as prime minister of Israel is likely to revive memories of his checkered public and military career, some of which he can point to with pride and others he would rather forget.
“It’s hard to find somebody who is neutral about Ariel Sharon,” said Thomas Smerling, executive director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that supports the peace process as a strategic asset to Israel and the U.S. “He has what is called in politics, strong positives and strong negatives.”
“There is a metaphor used to describe him, ‘bulldozer,’” he said of the barrel-chested, hawkish politician. “And how you feel about him depends on which end you are at — in the driver’s seat or being bulldozed. But what is interesting is that almost everyone who meets with him finds him personally very charming with a good sense of humor and reasonable.”
Smerling noted that Sharon “looms large over Israeli history and is eager to have a legacy that will overcome the Lebanon war.”
As defense minister, Sharon was the mastermind of the 1982 Lebanon war, during which as many as 2,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were massacred by Lebanese Christian militia under Sharon’s control. As a result of an inquiry into that event, Sharon was forced to give up his defense post. The incursion into Lebanon, which Sharon said was intended only to drive out the PLO, dragged on and on, becoming Israel’s version of Vietnam.
But Sharon’s leadership in Lebanon is offset by an impressive military record in which Sharon gained prowess as a military leader. He is the only Israeli leader to have fought in each of Israel’s wars.
“He’s a great hero,” said Philip Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
Enlisted in the Jewish resistance movement at the age of 14, the now white-haired war-horse of the Israeli right worked his way up the ranks. In the Six-Day War in 1967, Sharon and his troops defeated a much larger Egyptian force. And in his most controversial success, Sharon commanded an armored division in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and defied orders to cross the Suez Canal and attack and capture Egypt’s Third Army from the rear. Military historians credit that single battle as a turning point in a war that Israel nearly lost.
But Baum said he is not sure whether Sharon — who as Israel’s foreign minister at the Wye River peace talks in 1998 refused to talk to or shake hands with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat — would be as open to compromise and accommodation in peace talks as other leaders.
“Most Jews here find it surprising that he is outdistancing Barak [in the polls] because most have been sympathetic to Barak on the whole,” Baum observed. “It is therefore surprising that someone like Sharon should be returned as a popular figure. … I’d be surprised if Sharon had the support of American Jews. Most thought he had his moment. It turns out we were wrong, but the choice is theirs.”
He said he hoped that American Jews would not make their support of Israel “contingent upon whom we want the Israelis to elect prime minister. I don’t think we have the right to demand that.”
Others point out that Sharon is more complex than many believe. They see him as a pragmatist who has mellowed in recent years. For instance, although he publicly refuses to speak to Arafat, Sharon quietly got word to him that he should not criticize his appointment as foreign minister because he intended to do business with him. And thus at the Wye talks, when Sharon entered the same room with Arafat, he nodded two or three times in Arafat’s direction and Arafat half saluted in return, according to an account in The New Republic.
And although he referred to the Palestinians as “gangsters,” the magazine said he spent hours with Arafat’s lieutenants who “later testified to his flexibility and seriousness in working out the details of the Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, something he had always previously denounced as a danger to the security of Israel.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he believes that if Sharon is elected prime minister, “there will be a process of learning to appreciate who he is without demonization. Sharon was demonized for years by the opposition and by those who did not know him better. People will learn that Arik Sharon is not an ideologue, he is a pragmatist. He has an open mind and can change his political views and embrace a situation if it calls for it.
“I am personally convinced that he wants peace and that he has his own red lines, which does not make him a warmonger or a right-wing fanatic. He has basic positions that in his mind should not be given up, but that does not mean he will not negotiate.”
Sharon has proposed returning only half the land in the West Bank as Barak has proposed. (He also strongly opposes President Clinton’s proposal, which leaked out this week, that Israel give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount as the basis for a comprehensive agreement to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.) He has said that the agreements made at Oslo must be re-examined and that peace must be achieved in slow, incremental steps phased in over a number of years. He has also been adamant that Jerusalem remain the undivided capital of Israel. Peace activists point out, however, that Israeli opinion polls show a growing public acceptance of a compromise on the future status of Jerusalem.
But Arabs, by and large, have failed to recognize the nuances in Sharon’s persona. Jason Isaacson, director of governmental and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said Sharon is “clearly a polarizing figure in the Arab world. Most Arabs hate him; he is scorned by much of the Arab intellectual class. But there are also some observers of the Middle East who will tell you he is also respected by some of Israel’s Arab neighbors because of his military background, his convictions and his often seemingly unyielding attitude.”
On the other hand, Isaacson pointed out, “it is one thing to have a sharply critical view of a politician, and it is something else to look down the road to how that politician would perform as chief executive — whether the demands of governance would create a different dynamic, a different relationship with the Palestinians and the Arab states. There are many variables here that do not permit one to simply say that he would have a negative or salutary effect on negotiations.”
Isaacson said he believed that American Jews would prefer to see another candidate for prime minister but that “at the end of the day, American Jews overwhelmingly support whomever the Israelis choose. I don’t see any impact on fund raising [for Israel]. We are blessed with a very sophisticated community that understands the democratic process and the perils and promise of Israel.”
Ernest Bloch, president of Pro-Israel, an organization dedicated to preserving the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem for Israel, said “Sharon could turn out to be a great leader. We should do everything to encourage him not to make any concessions in dealing with Arafat and the Arabs.” He said land for peace, the principle of the 1993 Oslo accords, is “really land for war. Since we made that agreement with the Arabs, we’ve encouraged them to believe that we were becoming weak. As a result, they have been demanding more and more. There is only one language they understand, the language of firmness, that we will not give away any part of our country to them.”
Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said he believed Sharon would have a “very detrimental effect on the future of the peace process, as well as U.S.-Israeli relations. He has a long history of provocative statements, positions and actions regarding Arabs and Palestinians. All of that history is going to be carried with him if he were to represent Israel.”
Lewis recalled Sharon’s highly publicized Sept. 28 visit to the Temple Mount, during which he was ringed by Israeli forces, as the latest of his provocative actions. Until recently, Palestinians blamed their uprising on Sharon’s visit. They now acknowledge that it was a planned response designed to recapture international support after President Bill Clinton publicly blamed Arafat for the failed Camp David peace talks in July.
“It could be a problem for American Jews if he was to represent Israel,” Roth said. “There will be segments of the American Jewish community who remember these things and will be less comfortable with him than with other Israeli officials.”