Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat, 5761
American Jewish groups shouldn’t be fearful of life with Sharon
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT IS a given that Jewish organizations and their leaders will give Sharon a harder time than they gave any of his predecessors.
The looks on the faces of many Jewish communal leaders these days is downcast and troubled. What’s on their minds? Their worst nightmare is about to come to life with an event that, even two months ago, few believed possible — the election of Likud party leader Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel.
With the balloting one week away, opinion polls show Sharon leading incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak by anywhere from 15 to 20 percentage points. While anything can happen, a lead of such proportions at this late date is virtually insurmountable.
Though some left-wing Israelis and their American counterparts are painting Sharon’s election as a prelude to the apocalypse, most Israelis I spoke to during my recent visit there seemed pretty calm. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects about this dramatic chapter in Israeli history that is unfolding before us is the nonchalant attitude that most Israelis have taken toward the election.
Few Israelis seem to think the election of the man known to Israelis as "Arik" or "the bulldozer" is a good thing, but (as was the case with Benjamin Netanyahu when he was booted out of office by Barak only 20 months ago) they are resigned to it as a necessary evil, since Barak’s incompetence and recklessness are considered liabilities the nation can no longer afford.
Here in America, the organized Jewish world is in a panic about Sharon’s impending win. The conventional wisdom of the day is that Sharon will be a disaster for Israel, though most think his time at the top will be short-lived. Most seem to believe that Sharon will destroy Israel’s image in the world, harm the U.S.-Israel alliance, alienate American Jews and set up a real chance for all-out war with the Palestinians and the Arab states.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict that some of these expectations will be proved dead wrong.
DEMONIZATION WILL HURT
Sharon will be demonized and painted as a loose cannon who will destroy the peace process. But, contrary to his image, Sharon has always been more of a political pragmatist and an opportunist than an ideologue or the militaristic caricature that American Jews believe him to be. Having waited this long to get to the prime minister’s residence, he won’t blow it. He will move cautiously, reaching out to Labor and doing his best to form a national unity government.
Such a government will slow down the hysterical pace of Israeli concessions, followed by more Palestinian violence, followed by even more concessions, that was Barak’s excuse for a policy. Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat may try to rattle Sharon, but whatever his other obvious faults, this is one ex-general who can keep his cool under fire.
Sharon will probably be prepared to make concessions to the Palestinians, but I doubt that he will give in on Jerusalem, the issue on which Barak was broken. But it won’t really matter, because most Israelis have come to understand that there is no real peace partner, only a Palestinian foe who must be contained.
STRENGTH BETTER THAN WEAKNESS
Arafat, who will be pleased with the bad press Israel’s new prime minister gets and may raise the level of violence against Israel. But fearing that Sharon will live up to his iron-fist reputation, the old terrorist may not be so bold as to incite violence against Israel as he was under Barak.
Though it seems everyone is predicting that Sharon’s coalition — if he can form one — will soon collapse because of the unstable makeup of the current Knesset, I think he will last out the remainder of this parliamentary term (which ends in May 2003). No one in Israel, especially members of the Knesset, want another election soon, and if Sharon can put together a centrist alliance, it will probably last. Netanyahu’s bet that Sharon’s moment would soon pass may turn out to have been a big mistake.
I also think his relationship with the Bush administration may be a lot better than Clinton’s buddy Barak might have had. The Bush team doesn’t want to be dragged into another Middle East summit failure, such as the one Barak and Clinton created at Camp David last summer.
Bush’s State Department is quite properly focused on the threat from Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein, not on the Palestinians. If the Bush people understand that Arafat does not want peace but is solely interested in isolati ng Israel from the United States, my bet is that they will not be suckered by him into a pointless feud with Sharon.
The first Bush administration was unfriendly to Israel, but unlike his father, this Bush isn’t driven to create a "new world order." Sharon and Bush may get along just fine, so long as the Israeli treats the president with the deference he craves.
LIBERAL JEWS WILL BE UNHAPPY
But if that is the strategy liberals choose, it will be they, and not Sharon, who will be out of touch with the realities of the Middle East and the will of Israel’s people.
Sharon’s defense of a united Jerusalem will play much better here than Barak’s willingness to go along with a partition of the city. Those American Jewish groups that find the guts to speak out in defense of Sharon may well be vindicated as the dust settles after Feb. 6.
It is always possible that Sharon’s big mouth and impulsive style will do him
in, but my guess is that he will take advantage of his one chance in the
spotlight and wind up becoming more popular than anyone ever imagined.
Sharon may not turn out to be Israel’s Churchill — a late blooming success
who turns his country’s adversity into personal popularity. But with a little
bit of luck and the continuing rejection of peace by Arafat, Jewish history
may come to view "Prime Minister Sharon" with more kindness than it will
treat either Barak or