By Eric Fettmann, December 4, 2002
IN less than two months, Israelis will cast their votes and almost certainly
re-elect an incumbent prime minister for the first time since 1988. Indeed, by all
the polls, Ariel Sharon is headed for a landslide victory, with his Likud bloc
likely to win twice as many seats in the Knesset as its chief rival, the Labor Party.
Coming on the heels of Sharon’s 2-to-1 victory over Ehud Barak in the last
election, that result would make Sharon the most politically successful Israeli
leader since David Ben-Gurion.
And yet the nation remains plagued by rampant Palestinian terrorism – the
scourge that brought down the last three prime ministers. Moreover, the Israeli
economy is in a shambles, with unemployment rising and steep budget cuts
slicing into the social fabric.
For any prime minister to remain so popular in the face of so many problems
would be remarkable. For that popular prime minister to be Ariel Sharon – once
considered the most emotionally divisive figure in all Israeli politics – is
It’s now clear that Labor’s decision two months ago to abruptly quit the
national-unity government, forcing new elections, was a colossal blunder. In his
nearly two years as prime minister, Sharon has earned the nation’s trust as few
might have expected of someone who was hounded out of office as defense
minister during the Lebanon war. Because after a series of weak, vacillating
prime ministers, Sharon has proven himself to be a true national leader, as
many of his erstwhile critics now admit.
True, Sharon has proved lucky – in the quality of his opponents, for one thing.
He won an easy victory in the Likud primary over former Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, who seemed to believe that right-wing sloganeering was
enough to reclaim the party’s mantle. But even right-wingers doubted
Netanyahu could achieve the second time around what he couldn’t do in his
first crack at the job.
In the general election, Sharon faces a Labor candidate, Amram Mitzna, who
comes off as little more than an Israeli George McGovern – advocating
Oslo-based policies of unilateral concessions and trust-based negotiations with
Yasser Arafat that have long been discredited in the public mind.
But the opposition really doesn’t matter; Israelis have fallen in love with Ariel
Sharon. He scores approval ratings in the high 60s on issues of reliability and
trust; 70 percent and up hold him blameless for the security and economic situations.
For one thing, the public credits him with seeking to restore a sense of national
consensus and inclusion by voluntarily forming a national-unity government
with Labor and resisting efforts to dismantle it. Indeed, he’s promised to form
another such government, no matter how decisive the election results.
For another, they recognize that with George W. Bush he has formed the
closest U.S.-Israeli relationship of any prime minister. And that relationship has
yielded key dividends: intense cooperation in the war on terrorism, a virtual
green light from Washington to forceful Israeli reprisals for Palestinian
murderous violence and a White House call for Arafats replacement.
Much of that, of course, has to do with the world’s post-9/11 understanding of
terrorisms threat – and the recognition that, month’s before al Qaedas hijackers
destroyed the Twin Towers, Sharon was openly warning about “the great
strategic risk of surrendering to terrorism” for fear of “difficult and complex
Most of all, though, Sharon has projected a note of realism that Israelis have
come to accept. Though long known as Israel’s “bulldozer” – the man to whom
Israelis turned to solve national emergencies – he admits there is no instant
solution to the terrorism problem. “He doesn’t give the public a sense of instant
gratification,” adviser Eyal Arad told one Israeli paper.
Sharon, in short, is in this for the long haul. And hes worked to break down the
walls of partisanship in favor of a broad national consensus.
It’s the complete opposite of his longtime image as a charging bull who seeks
to divide and conquer. But as I wrote shortly after he took office, the worst
mistake that can be made about Ariel Sharon is to believe most of the things
that have been written about him.
Expect the unexpected. Sharon has produced what only those who truly
know him expected. Which is why he is poised to score a personal triumph that
once seemed unimaginable.