P. David Hornik
January 10, 2006
Ariel Sharon’s medical emergency has unleashed a wave of media-impelled groupthink in Israel and much of the world. The official line is that he was “the only Israeli leader who could make peace,” and that his loss gravely imperils the “peace process.” The underlying axiom is that his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank was a wise, courageous step, and a path he would have continued when reelected next March 28.
Even the assumption of Sharon’s popularity in Israel is exaggerated. According to polls taken still three months before the elections, a Sharon-led Kadima Party would have won 40 seats. To begin with, Israeli polls are notoriously inaccurate. For instance, they wrongly predicted a handy victory by Shimon Peres over Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 elections, and, even more mistakenly, an easy win for Sharon’s disengagement plan in the Likud referendum in May 2004.
But even if Kadima under Sharon had won 40 seats in March, soundly defeating both Labor and Likud, 40 seats is still only one-third of Israel’s 120-member, multiparty Knesset. In other words, Kadima would have won by a solid plurality but no more. And a Kadima that would have garnered—more likely—30-35 seats would have had, merely, a not-so-impressive plurality. In fact, the talkbacks on Israeli Hebrew news sites gives a much more mixed picture regarding Sharon’s alleged great popularity.
Nor is it warranted to assume that Sharon would have carried out further disengagements, when last September 29 he said exactly the opposite. Granted, Sharon did not have a track record of great consistency and honesty; but it is just as plausible that his old, security-conscious self would have revived (or already had) and refused to hand further launching pads, gratis, to Hamas, the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, Al-Qaeda and the rest.
Nevertheless, Sharon is being lionized like Yitzhak Rabin before him as “the Israeli who could have made peace,” even as the Palestinian Authority and the Middle East in general sink further and further into Islamist hatred and belligerency. The reasons for the great popularity of Israeli territorial withdrawals—which mean transferring land, and populations, from the control of a pro-Western democracy to that of Islamist terror organizations, with demonstrably harmful effects for both Palestinians and Israelis—lie partly in the realm of psychology. On the mundane level, though, it is possible to correct the destructive groupthink myths about Sharon, which encourage those Israelis who are most delusional and least able to cope with Middle Eastern realities.
The aim is not disrespect for an ailing leader, but respect for the truth. A more fact-based view of Sharon, then, reveals:
As detailed by Nehemia Strasler in a January 5 Haaretz oped, Sharon initially positioned himself to become prime minister by winning the Likud primaries in 1999. A campaign spending limit of 830,000 shekels was honored by his two rivals, Ehud Olmert and Meir Sheetrit, whereas Sharon, with the help of his son Omri—now facing a jail sentence for major election fraud—mobilized a sum of 5.5 million shekels, over six times the permitted amount, and won the primaries. Two days before Sharon’s major stroke, the Israeli media reported that the police had uncovered evidence of his accepting a $3 million bribe from Austrian businessmen, in part to help him repay the illegal campaign contributions, the rest pocketed by him and his sons. The police were preparing an indictment.
Sharon used further shenanigans to best Netanyahu as the Likud’s prime ministerial candidate for both 2001 and 2003. As Caroline Glick details:
“By conspiring with Shimon Peres in 2000 to prevent the holding of general elections, Sharon effectively barred Netanyahu from running for office—thus paving his own path to succeed [Ehud] Barak while preventing the collapse of the political Left at the polls. . . . In November 2002, by padding the Likud’s voter rolls with kibbutz members and refugees from the South Lebanon Army . . . Sharon defeated Netanyahu in the Likud primaries.”
The corruption of Sharon and his sons Omri and Gilad is legendary in Israel and widely acknowledged. The fact that Sharon remained popular is more connected to pathology—a decline toward Third World standards and desperate clinging to a leader-cult—than to rationality.
2. The trampling of democratic norms.
In spring 2003 Sharon ran for a second term as prime minister against Labor candidate Amram Mitzna, whose cri de couer was a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon explicitly opposed such a step as dangerous and unnecessary, and won in a landslide. But later that same year, in a stunning reversal, Sharon announced his disengagement plan whose centerpiece was the pullback from Gaza. In 2005 Israeli journalists Ofer Shelach and Raviv Drucker published a book alleging that the plan was dreamed up by Sharon’s spin doctor, Eyal Arad, as a way of saving Sharon from legal hot water over the 1999 campaign-financing scandal. Given the timing and Sharon’s total rejection of such a move until that point, the charges were more than plausible.
Accused of defrauding his voters, however, Sharon agreed to submit the plan to a referendum of Likud Party members, and to abide by the results. When the plan was defeated in another landslide, Sharon simply ignored the verdict and went ahead with it. When the plan encountered further opposition in his cabinet, he “solved” the problem by simply firing the ministers—elected representatives of constituencies—who opposed it.
Citizens of other democracies, even if inclined to admire Sharon, should ask themselves if they would consider such tactics acceptable in their own country, and if a leader who engaged in them deserves the adulation of much of the democratic world.
3. The worsening of Israeli security.
In spring 2001, having prevented a right-wing government led by Netanyahu from taking office, Sharon formed a government with Labor, making Oslo architect Shimon Peres (“It was right to give Arafat the Nobel Peace Prize”) his foreign minister and another Laborite, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (“there is no military solution to terrorism”), his defense minister. The result was unprecedented numbers of Israelis slaughtered and injured in the streets, with the government not allowing the IDF even to begin fighting back until the Park Hotel massacre in Netanya in March 2002.
Natan Sharansky, who was a minister in this government, gave this account of it in The Case for Democracy (with Ron Dermer, Public Affairs, 2004, p. 229):
“Sharon cobbled together a national unity government and made Shimon Peres his foreign minister. . . . The sea change in Israeli public opinion... was not reflected inside Israel’s parliament, and this was especially true inside Israel’s Labor party. Most of the leading Labor ministers did not change their pro-Oslo views. They remained convinced that Arafat and the PA were the only alternatives and that nothing should be done to weaken them. Rather than meet the escalation of Palestinian terror with a firm response, they counseled restraint.”
The outcome was grisly.
In spring 2003, when the Israeli people were at last allowed to elect a right-wing government, Sharon replaced Ben Eliezer with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who worked together with a talented chief of staff and head of the General Security Service to fight terror more effectively, though still with high Israeli casualties. But since then the disengagement plan has nullified the gains. Hamas, while mostly observing an obviously temporary cease-fire, is rebuilding itself at will in Gaza as terrorists and weapons pour across a border that Sharon left, in effect, totally unguarded. Kassams are making life unlivable in the Western Negev and have already reached the town of Ashkelon with its major power installations. Meanwhile, the settlers hastily evicted from Gaza and the northern West Bank have been shamefully treated by Sharon’s government, with a new report “paint[ing] a grim picture of the evacuees’ economic, emotional and family situations.”
Last December 30, the deteriorating security situation prompted Haaretz’s left-of-center military analyst Zeev Schiff to acknowledge that “Escalation Is Inevitable.”
Ariel Sharon had a long military and political career, and his achievements and failures in both areas will be debated for a long time to come. But a look at his record as prime minister since 2001 reveals damage to Israeli democratic norms, an appalling toll of dead and wounded, the abandonment of Gaza to Islamist terror without viable security arrangements, and the further vitalization of terror by showing again that it forces Israel into capitulations. Replacing the Oslo Syndrome with the Arik Syndrome keeps Israel confused and endangered.
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P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Jerusalem who has contributed recently to The Jerusalem Post, The American Spectator Online, and Israeli news-views websites.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.