The two successive strokes and the cerebral hemorrhage that struck down Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came just a few weeks after the somber ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The causes of the two occurrences were very different, and so was the actual physical outcome, for Rabin died within minutes of sustaining his wounds, while doctors still hold out glimmers of hope for Sharon’s survival, albeit with grave handicaps.

But with all the differences, comparisons are to be drawn between the two events whereby a serving Israeli prime minister was abruptly removed from the political arena at a crucial moment in his career, and apparently on the threshold of even more dramatic turns of policy. Rabin, it seems in hindsight, was intent on full and unreserved implementation of the 1993 and 1994 Oslo accords, leading swiftly to an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and establishment of a Palestinian state on those lands. One can only guess how the politics of Israel and the entire region would have developed had he been spared the assassin’s bullets.

In Sharon’s case, it is equally a matter of guesswork to imagine how matters would be unfolding had his body not betrayed him precisely as he stood at a turning point of fateful significance for his own career and the political future of his country. Certainly he would have led his newly created Kadima Party to a sweeping victory in the upcoming March 2006 elections. Certainly he would have returned to the prime minister’s office for a third term—becoming the first Israeli politician to achieve such a feat in decades. But beyond that point, conjecture has little to go on. Would a third-term Sharon have built upon the August 2005 withdrawal from Gaza to institute similar steps in the West Bank? Having shown up the far-right settler movement as a paper tiger, would he have proclaimed “disengagement” from dozens of outlying Jewish settlements and sent the army to remove their weeping inhabitants, ordering in bulldozers to demolish their homes? Would all this again be put into effect unilaterally, without so much as a semblance of negotiations with a marginalized Palestinian leadership? Would this drastic pruning of the settlements he had done so much to promote have been offset by completion of the “separation fence” that would reduce the supposedly “liberated” Palestinian territories to a disjoined series of bantustans, with a measure of freedom comparable to that enjoyed by the inmates of an open-air prison?

In all probability, these questions will remain forever unanswered, at most serving as a playing ground for speculation by doctoral aspirants. But the fallout from the political moves Sharon had already put in play before his incapacitation is starkly evident. A series of bold demarches—unwittingly supported by the blunders of his adversaries—had set him at Israel’s political epicenter in a position of dominance unrivaled since the days of founding father David Ben-Gurion. It is this very ascendancy that has made his sudden departure into an event even more traumatic than the murder of Rabin. For a week or more, the shock brought political life to a standstill, while hourly newscasts offered medical reports on his condition in minute detail. Only when doctors reported with monotonous regularity that Sharon’s condition “remains grave but stable” did the political arena show signs of activity.

An Alliance Smashed

But even in those early days, while politicians declined the most innocuous of questions on the pretext that “this is no time for policy declarations,” it was evident that this simulated tiptoeing around Sharon’s bedside cannot undo what has already been accomplished in his last year in office. With the Gaza disengagement, the prime minister, in effect, had bent his prodigious energies toward undoing the two principal accomplishments of his political career. Sharon was the long-time champion of the settlement project and patron of the settler movement, as recently as April 2002 assuring the Knesset that “the fate of [the Gaza settlement] of Netzarim is the fate of [the Negev town of] Negba and Tel Aviv.” While media attention focused on the visual drama surrounding the destruction of Netzarim, few noted the fact that the bulldozers were simultaneously tearing down the broad nationalist-clericalist coalition that Sharon helped to forge in the 1970s and that has been the dominant force in Israeli politics ever since. By bringing secular nationalists who believed that territory was the guarantor of security together with clerical populists and messianic fundamentalists who believed in the Jewish religious duty to settle the entirety of biblical Israel, Sharon granted the Likud Party and its satellites virtually unbroken hegemony.

Then, by taking the “sacrilegious” step of dismantling a score of Jewish settlements, the prime minister smashed that alliance. His bitter confrontation with the fervent religious nationalists of the settler movement destroyed any prospect—at least in the foreseeable future—of a restoration of that coalition whereby the settlers and their radical allies had exercised a stranglehold on Israeli politics. The settlers, hitherto his closest and most loyal allies, accustomed to his benign support for every action, however blatantly illegal (“Go grab the hilltops!” he instructed them publicly), now found his door closed to them. Angered and betrayed by his resolve to dismantle settlements, they denounced his “treason” in terms usually reserved for leftist peaceniks. Conversely, a large portion of the Likud leadership—and an even larger portion of the party’s members—welcomed Sharon’s decision to give up the Gaza settlements.

The gulf that has opened up between the fundamentalists and the secular nationalists of the Sharon school seems unbridgeable. When Sharon went down with his stroke, settler leaders dutifully joined in expressions of concern and hopes for an early recovery. But privately, many settler communities evidenced quiet satisfaction that their former idol had incurred divine retribution for his perfidy. Israeli politics have known many stunning reversals, but it would take a major miracle to heal the bitter split in the right-wing camp.

“Only Arik Can Do It”

In walking out on his fractious Likud followers and creating Kadima, Sharon did far more than shed rebellious hardliners. He may have initiated a sea change in the direction of Israeli politics. Sharon has given few hints to explain his change of course in relation to the Greater Israel ideology he once espoused with such fervor. Some claim he underwent a change of heart comparable to the inner transformation that changed Rabin from relentless hawk into icon of peace. Others argue that his was nothing more than a tactical maneuver designed to perpetuate Israel’s domination of all the land west of the Jordan, while confining the Palestinians to helpless dependence within a notionally “independent” state.

But whatever his private motives, Sharon certainly appealed to the desires and aspirations of much of Israel’s Jewish electorate. For many years, every opinion poll has discovered a clear majority of Israelis thoroughly weary of the occupation and its attendant travails. At the same time, an even larger majority has endorsed the view, disseminated with equal vigor by Likud and Labor, that “there’s nobody to talk to” on the Palestinian side, and therefore no hope of negotiating a satisfactory and conclusive peace deal. Hemmed in between these apparently contradictory parameters, large numbers of voters who wanted an end to the occupation continued to vote for parties intent on perpetuating it.

In deserting his Likud Party and recreating it in a more pragmatic incarnation in Kadima, Sharon cut that Gordian knot. Judging by his performance in the past year, his startling departure seemed to hold out prospects of an early withdrawal from much of the Occupied Territories, yet without the humiliating necessity of seeking an equitable agreement with the Palestinian leadership. Without setting it out in so many words, Sharon seemed to suggest that, under a Kadima-led coalition, Israel would be free to choose what areas to relinquish and which to retain. The Palestinians would not be consulted, and if the deal was not to their liking, there would be very little they could do about it, because by then Israel would be safely ensconced within a ghetto wall designed to keep out the suicide bombers who have instilled such terror into Israeli hearts. By catering equally to nationalist arrogance, and to centuries-old primeval fears that haunted Jewish communities under Gentile threat, Sharon put together a package of irresistible appeal.

Moreover, Sharon had contrived to make himself an integral and dominant component of that package. Long the idol of those starry-eyed nationalists in whom generals—particularly those with striking nicknames like “Arik”—induced adulation reserved elsewhere for pop stars, Sharon had also won over many of his erstwhile critics with his can-do handling of the Gaza pullout. Many of the outraged protesters who had poured out in their tens of thousands to condemn him for his “indirect” responsibility for the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut now rendered him grudging respect over his unblinking confrontation with the settlers who had for so long held the political establishment in thrall. Watching in admiration as Sharon faced down the hardline settlers who had threatened to shut down the country with massive shows of civil disobedience, law-abiding citizens who had long been uneasy about the manner in which he had ridden roughshod over legality and morality to ram through his colonization projects could now comfort themselves with the hope that “the Bulldozer” would unsnarl the settlement mesh he had himself woven. While Kadima was little more than a declaration of intent, with no party structure or formal electoral platform, its unofficial slogan “Only Arik can do it!” was already making the rounds.

In a metaphor drawn from cosmography, some had predicted an imminent “big bang” that would destroy the existing political structure, to replace it with a dominant alliance of the center that would at long last tackle the issue of the occupation, and release energies to deal with Israel’s long-standing domestic problems. That is precisely what has come about, though in the event, the dramatic political developments of recent months are best described in seismic terms: as a major earthquake, with friction between the tectonic plates of public sentiment finally erupting to alter beyond recognition the surface of Israeli politics. Kadima, with Sharon at its head, flanked by some of the more promising figures of the Likud leadership—not to mention Shimon Peres and a number of Labor personages who also rallied to its ranks—was already leading polls with a prospect of 40 or more seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Sinking In

The question now is whether that magic effect will persist with Sharon no longer in the picture. His temporary replacement, Ehud Olmert, has been a close political ally of the prime minister, who repeatedly sent out his deputy to release trial balloons in advance of the Gaza disengagement. Occasionally, Olmert—hitherto a strident hawk—has sounded off in pragmatic terms even more far-reaching than those employed by Sharon. But while it seems probable that Olmert and the other leading lights of Kadima entertain intentions similar to those of Sharon himself, it is far from clear whether they possess anything like the clout of their leader and mentor.

While doctors fight to save Sharon’s life, the wave of sympathy for his plight has drawn even greater support for Kadima, as reflected in polls taken after Sharon’s second, incapacitating stroke. But it still remains uncertain whether that level of popular backing will persist when the realization sinks in that Sharon will not be an active player in a Kadima government. Possibly with the aim of securing its present lead, there is talk in party circles of placing Sharon’s name at the head of its electoral list, irrespective of his physical condition. Will the Sharon name alone suffice to keep its present following on board? Present indications seem favorable, as acting prime minister Ehud Olmert takes the reins, with notable decisions like permission for East Jerusalem Palestinians to take part in the upcoming elections for the Palestinian parliament, and a tough stance toward rioting Hebron settlers, suggesting that he will continue Sharon’s line of action.

Most potential Kadima voters are disillusioned Likud supporters, and there has been concern in the Sharon camp that some might be tempted to return to their former political home. But the Likud rump is hardly an attractive proposition, under the renewed leadership of Binyamin Netanyahu. Once a popular figure in right-wing circles, Netanyahu lost much of his appeal for hardliners when he spent many months dithering in the Sharon cabinet, displaying half-hearted support for the Gaza disengagement until he finally plucked up the courage for a protest resignation mere days before the settlers were removed. Likewise, his role as welfare-slashing finance minister made him unpopular with the Sephardi poor who were a mainstay of the party’s electoral base. While Netanyahu himself is not much of an electoral asset, the party leadership has just made matters worse by choosing a candidate slate of unreconstructed hardliners. The uncompromising image thus projected is likely to push Likud ever further toward the margins, where it will have to compete with three or four religious-nationalist parties.

The ups and downs of Israeli politics always make it unwise to predict future developments. With elections due in late March, much could yet happen. But unless there is a major upset, or a major military flareup, it seems probable that Kadima—with or without Sharon as a figurehead—will emerge from the March poll as the dominant party. What remains to be seen is what Ehud Olmert and his colleagues will do with that power.

How to cite this article:

Peretz Kidron "Less a “Big Bang” Than an Earthquake," Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2006.

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