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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2000 / 21 Kislev, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Their Worst Nightmare

Jewish liberals may come to regret Barakís election trickery -- EHUD BARAK is a very clever man. But, after 18 disastrous months as Israelís prime minister, itís become pretty clear that he is, as the British like to say, too clever by half.

The latest inspiration produced by the prime minister was his surprise announcement that instead of going along with a dissolution of the Knesset, which would lead to a general election for both prime minister and a new parliament, he would simply resign. Under Israelís current election law, that would mean that the Knesset itself would not be up for re-election, but that there would instead be a special election for prime minister within 60 days. Only those already in the Knesset could run for the job.

Thus, in one neat stroke, Barak may have eliminated his two most dangerous foes: Knesset Speaker ó and fellow Labor Party member ó Avram Burg and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader-in-waiting of the Likud whom Barak defeated last May.

The accelerated schedule all but made a Burg challenge impossible. And, considering that it would take a majority of the Knesset acting quickly to make Bibi eligible for the big prize, Barak may have also eliminated the man who is leading him by 20 points in the polls.

This would leave Barak one main rival for re-election: current Likud leader Ariel ďArikĒ Sharon. Most observers of Israeli politics have seen Sharon as merely the caretaker of the opposition while Prince Bibi sat out a self-imposed exile from politics waiting for just the right moment to sweep back into power. And thatís just fine, because Barak thinks the 73-year-old Sharon is too old, too tired, too controversial and way too right-wing to ever be elected prime minister of Israel.

If his scheme holds up, this would, in theory, ensure Barakís re-election, despite a truncated first term that has proven even more of a fiasco than Netanyahuís three-year reign of scandals and blunders.

But what if Barak is wrong? What if dissatisfaction with his failures and his inability to end the Palestinian war of attrition is so great that Israelís voters throw him out anyway? In that scenario, clever Ehud will have brought about the realization of the worst nightmare an American Jewish liberal can imagine: Arik Sharon taking the oath of office as Israelís 11th premier.

Bellicose, nationalistic and politically maladroit, Sharon is the embodiment of everything that embarrasses and drives Jewish liberals crazy about Israel. Though he is a genuine hero of all of Israelís wars from 1948 to 1973, he is better remembered as the architect of Israelís controversial 1982 Lebanon war. Blamed by a commission of inquiry for failing to prevent a Lebanese Christian massacre of Palestinians, he has long been held as anathema by many American Jews.


The reaction to the Sabra-Shatilla massacre in 1982 was, in fact, a seminal moment not only in Israeli political history, but in the way Diaspora Jews view Israel. It was the moment ó or perhaps it might better be said, the excuse ó that many American Jews used to turn away from Israel. It was a key part of a process that ultimately split a mostly unified American Jewish community. From then on, pro-Israel forces in this country have always had to deal with a strong left-wing faction that has served as Israelís hair shirt, scourging the Jewish state for its imperfections and serving as cheerleader for the increasingly influential Israeli Peace Now movement.

Whether the charges against Sharon were entirely fair or not is no longer material. Suffice it to say that he was not without fault. Those close to then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his family have always blamed Sharon for the Lebanon quagmire with just as much bitterness as his enemies on the left.

Sharon added to this reputation by being the fall guy for the beginning of the latest Palestinian war against Israel this past September. Even though the evidence is overwhelming that Yasser Arafat and Palestinian armed groups planned and started the recent violence as a tactic to break down Barakís negotiating position and gain the sympathy of the world, most of the media still wrongly pin the blame on Sharon because of his untimely visit to the Temple Mount.

Sharon is neither as slick nor as articulate as Bibi, whom everyone believes could defeat him for the Likud leadership. But one thing Sharon does have going for him is the reality that Barakís miscalculations and Arafatís war policy has created: an Israel where Jerusalemites have come to treat the sound of Arab gunfire on Jewish neighborhoods as normal. Talk to anyone in Israel these days and you get the feeling that Barakís missteps have landed Israelís people in unfamiliar territory. They are unaccustomed to a situation where an armed Palestinian foe has taken the offensive, while Israelís superior forces must stand back while being pilloried for any defensive measures they take. The result is a decline in national morale that is as serious as anything else happening there.

Given the discrediting of the Oslo process, a hard-line attitude might be more of the flavor of the month than many of us here would want to believe. While Sharon may be as bereft of easy answers to the peace dilemma as anyone else, Israelis may come to believe that his strength could enable him to make a better deal than Barak.

Thatís why Barak and the Israeli left would do well to be wary of Sharon. Though the polls show him running only slightly ahead of Barak, he might actually be a better man for this political moment than Netanyahu, whose irresolution in the face of Arafatís provocations is not exactly a distant memory. Sharon could make Barakís Camp David concessions ó including the division of Jerusalem ó the issue in this campaign and make them stick to the prime minister.

Could it be that 2001 is the moment for Sharon, the same way that 1940 was the moment for a man perceived as an old, failed British politician with a reputation as a warmonger and blowhard? Sharon may be no Winston Churchill, and Barak may not be a variant on Neville Chamberlain. But anyone who still believes in the future of the Oslo peace process just hasnít been paying attention to the news. But just as 'Chamberlain's appeasement may have created the unique circumstances that allowed Churchill to finally become Britain's prime minister, so too might Barak's Camp David concessions achieve the same goal for Sharon.

If Sharon were elected, the grief of the American Jewish establishment might be no less than that of the Palestinians. American Jewish leaders who supported President Clintonís ďevenhandedĒ intervention in the peace negotiations and did their best to undermine Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999 (as if he needed much help) would be aghast at having to line up on behalf of a Sharon government.

And given that many liberals already think a George W. Bush administration will be unsupportive of Israel, the predictions of disaster for the U.S.-Israel alliance will not be long in coming.

But there is reason to think that Sharon might do very nicely with Bush the younger. GOP sources say that on his 1998 trip to Israel, the Texas governor enjoyed a helicopter tour of Israelís borders with Sharon as his guide and emerged from it with a real admiration for the old war hero. Sharon might yet do better with Bush than Barak.

The odds are still against this scenario, but Ehud Barakís little election trick could give Israelís aging lion one last chance for glory.

Stay tuned. Stranger things have already come to pass.

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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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin