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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2003 / 4 Adar I, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Misunderstood Verdict

American post-mortems on Israeli vote betray bias | Was America listening when Israel spoke last week?

Ariel Sharon's second consecutive election victory was noted and then brushed aside by most of the mainstream media in this country.

On the day following the vote, most of the media's attention focused on President Bush's State of the Union address and its eloquent restating of the case for action against Iraq. A few days later, it was completely forgotten as both the United States and Israel were joined in shocked mourning over the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia with its crew of six Americans and one Israeli.

But to the extent that America's chattering classes thought about the verdict of Israeli democracy, their conclusion was that the results meant nothing.

According to the wise men and women who write editorials for daily American newspapers, Israel's voters can't be trusted to do what is in their best interests. And their only advice for the victor was to forget what he has promised Israel's people and do as they demand.

On the day following his re-election, The New York Times insisted Sharon reward the terrorists for their 29 months of bloodshed by agreeing to negotiate concessions to them before they stop their campaign of terrorism. In a similar piece on the same day, the Washington Post even blamed Sharon for the breakdown of a peace process that had actually collapsed due to the Palestinian decision to choose war over peace months before he was first elected two years ago. Following the lemming-like lead of Americans for Peace Now, the Post demanded that any additional aid to Israel be linked to concessions.

The Chicago Tribune chimed in, saying it understood why Israelis opted for Sharon, but lamented that this state of affairs will make it difficult for Bush to press the prime minister.


One reason for this spin is the repetition of ambiguous poll results that purport to show the majority of Israelis oppose settlements and want peace negotiations. This leads the wise men and women of the press here to conclude that even though Likud has won again, the Israeli people don't support them. Does that make sense? Not really.

Polls do say the Israeli people would trade some settlements for real peace. But the same polls will also tell you that they no longer support making any concessions, let alone permanent territorial surrender, in the absence of a complete cessation of terror and a change in the Palestinian culture of hatred that fuels it. Israelis know Oslo was a failure and refuse to trade land for terror again.

How do we know that? Because in the last two years, the people of Israel have gone to the polls twice, and each time they handed the parties of the left a historic shellacking. In the second vote held last week, Israeli voters gave Labor its worst-ever showing.

Why? Because though most Israelis aren't hard-core right-wingers, they are, unlike the leaders of the defeated left, realists about the Palestinians. But it seems as if two consecutive landslides still aren't enough for most of the American media to get this message.

So what else should American observers glean from the recent voting? First, it is time to forget the misleading labels by which Americans misunderstand Israeli politics.

It is no longer possible to pretend, as almost every American newspaper and broadcast outlet has long pretended, that Labor was the moderate party of Israel's center, and that the words Likud and Sharon could not be uttered or printed without the phrase "right-wing" or "hard-line" attached to it. Having been re-elected on a sensible combination of tough security policies and centrist sensibilities on possible peace plans, it is more than obvious that Sharon's Likud is the party that best represents Israel's political center. At the same time, Labor, having run under a leader, Amram Mitzna, pledging fidelity to the failed vision of the Oslo process, is not only not centrist, it is today supported only by a minority of bitter-end ideologues.

Indeed, for all of the talk in the Americcan media about the Israeli people's rejection of settlements, in the new Knesset open advocates and sympathizers of the settlement movement now overwhelmingly outnumber those who oppose their existence.

Making our peace with the Israeli election results will also require Americans to make a fundamental shift in our expectations about how even a theoretical step toward peace will happen. In his June 24 speech on the Middle East, President Bush seemed to understand that an American policy based on pushing Israel to make concessions that ignore Palestinian terrorism would not bring peace.

The White House (as opposed to the U.S. State Department) was actually way ahead of the media in treating Sharon and his followers as the political mainstream of Israel.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell, who appears to have come to his senses about the need for action against Iraq, needs a similar change of heart about the need for a quick route or "road map" to a Palestinian state that will be dominated by terrorists.

The State Department's cheering section for the Oslo myth also needs to be permanently disbanded. The exit of men like Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller - veterans of the Clinton administration as well as that of the first Bush - from State is a start. Others, such as Daniel Kurtzer, America's dysfunctional ambassador to Israel, must follow.


As he forms a new coalition (made easier by Likud's now commanding position in the Knesset), Sharon deserves to be given the maneuvering room he needs from American friends of Israel to get the cabinet that will best serve his pragmatic aims. There needs to be no pressure from these shores to include the forces of the left - or the right.

Moreover, his choice needs no seal of approval from either diplomats or squeamish American Jews; his government - whether a coalition with parties to his right or those to his left - will have legitimacy conferred upon it by a democratic election.

Finally, it may also be time for many of us, who have underestimated Sharon or dismissed him as a brutal if fleeting political phenomena brought upon Israel solely by Palestinian terror, to start to reevaluate his place in Israeli history.

Sharon will be judged more by how Israel fares by the time he leaves office than by how he won two elections. But his skill in solidifying Israel's alliance with the Bush administration and his revival of the Likud from its low point of 1999 to a position of ascendancy clearly mark him as one of the country's greatest political leaders.

In the months ahead, Sharon will be challenged anew with the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and the continued campaign of pressure on Israel from abroad. If he continues successfully steering his country toward a place where it can defend its security without distancing itself from the United States, there will be no reason for anyone - including the American media - to be surprised.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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