There is justifiable confusion regarding Ariel Sharon’s intentions, now that he has established a new government. Herewith, then, are some useful tips on how to relate to Israel’s recently re-elected prime minister.
Do not envy him. Sharon presides over a failing economy with negative growth, a chronic war with a corrupt and relentless enemy, a fractious people, an ungainly parliament and a compote of a Cabinet. At age 75, that’s a lot to handle. Indeed, it would be a lot to handle at any age. And his autonomy is constricted: He must not say or do things that will overly offend his principal ally, the United States; nor must he say or do anything that will overly offend the far-right members of his coalition government, whose positions are sharply at odds with those endorsed by the United States. The only way to steer a course between such divergent interests is to try hard not to rock the boat — that is, to take no initiatives, to settle for the status quo and hope that some external development will turn in your favor. The truth? There is no status quo; there is a careening whirligig that threatens to break away from its unstable moorings.
Do not pity Sharon. He wanted the job. He wanted it not only because he is an ambitious person, but also because now, at last, he has a chance of going down in history without an asterisk next to his name reminding people of his officially proclaimed “indirect responsibility” for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and also for the personal satisfaction it offers of besting his principal rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Some say he wants it also because he wants, at the end of a wild career, to be the Charles de Gaulle who makes peace, the Richard Nixon who cozies up to China, the Israeli who will win and actually deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Of that prospect, there is substantial reason to remain skeptical. Nor, truth be told, are any of us privy to Sharon’s private fantasies, which may just as well focus on the utter destruction of his enemy rather than on anything that can plausibly be called “peace.”
Do not believe him. As a general rule, it is wise not to believe politicians. Whether their prevarications are made necessary by the reality of their jobs, or whether prevaricators are naturally drawn to politics, we do not know, any more than we know whether the chicken preceded the egg.
As to Sharon himself, he of the unspecified “painful compromises,” there is nothing at all in his past to give rise to the hope that if and when the time comes, he will be ready for peace. Indeed, the evidence suggests that he will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the time will not come, lest he be shown to have made empty commitments.
No matter how many missiles Saddam Hussein destroys, President Bush and his colleagues will dismiss his concessions; Bush will not take “sort of” for an answer, and might even resist “yes.” Similarly, no matter how many peace-oriented initiatives the Palestinians and their allies take — think in this connection of last year’s Saudi initiative, which others might have sought to build upon but which Sharon ignored — Sharon is likely to insist on conditions and concessions that cannot reasonably be met. Nor, so far as anyone knows, do the elements of the peace he has in mind — if in fact he has peace in mind — suggest a stable peace. His voice may be the voice of sweet reason; his hands remain the hands of a provocateur.
Do not admire him. The government he has cobbled together commands 68 seats in the Knesset out of a total of 120. Of those 68, 24 will now be ministers in the government, plus six deputy ministers, the price Sharon has had to pay to gain their participation in his coalition majority. During the campaign, he had promised 18 ministerial appointments would be the upper limit.
Silvan Shalom, the new foreign minister, was the incompetent finance minister in the last Cabinet. Perhaps he is better suited for the Foreign Ministry, even though he has no diplomatic experience. But it matters less, since de facto Sharon will be his own foreign minister; better an incompetent in the formal position than Netanyahu. But the real kicker in this governing deck is a man named Tzahi Hanegbi, a charismatic ruffian who came within a millimeter of criminal indictment not long ago. Sharon designated Hanegbi internal security minister, which puts him in charge of the very police officials who sought that indictment, which was rejected on political grounds.
Then again, what can one expect of a government that embraces representatives of the National Union party, a party that includes men who calmly endorse — nay, promote — “transfer” as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A decade ago, “transfer” was essentially a forbidden word in polite Israeli company, meaning, as it does, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians; today, its advocates are full-fledged members of the Cabinet. Another decade, and who knows what currently unthinkables will become commonplace?
Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum; history, it turns out, abhors a status quo.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).