The Magazine

Ariel Sharon, Closet Dove?

His unity government muddles through, less hardline than advertised.

Nov 19, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 10 • By TOM ROSE
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NO ONE INSIDE ISRAEL wonders why Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abruptly cancelled a trip to Washington long scheduled for November 11-13. Everyone here knows that Sharon, at the urging of advisers and allies, cancelled the trip to avoid facing an American president unhappy about Israel's continued presence in Palestinian towns and likely to demand new Israeli concessions to Yasser Arafat. It wasn't fear of offending the president that worried Sharon's team, nor were they afraid the volatile former general might blow a gasket on American television. They dreaded the opposite. Those who know Sharon's history best worried not that he would reject U.S. demands--but that he would likely capitulate to them.

Sharon has been a national figure in Israel since his daring anti-terror raids of the 1950s. In 1973, his military exploits in the Yom Kippur War made him a national hero. But in less than a decade, he went from hero to goat when, as defense minister in 1982, he launched Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon to end PLO terrorist infiltration into northern Israel.

A massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Lebanese Christian militias allied with Israel forced Sharon to resign. An Israeli commission of inquiry ruled that by not anticipating the massacre, Sharon had incurred indirect responsibility for it. Many who know him say that cleansing himself of that stain has been his abiding obsession ever since.

He's pursued it against heavy odds. The world made up its mind about Sharon a long time ago. The American media, undoubtedly the least hostile, regularly label him "right wing" or "hard-line." The official Arab press prefers "butcher" or "murderer." Meanwhile, a Belgian court is pursuing a case that could lead to his indictment on war crimes charges for his "role" in the events at Sabra and Shatila.

Although Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001 in a historic landslide, few interpreted the win as a personal victory. In fact, Sharon was able to secure his conservative Likud party's nomination only because former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to seek it. Israelis were so desperate to end the disastrous tenure of Prime Minister Ehud Barak that they dealt him one of the most resounding defeats of any modern democratic head of government, sweeping into office in his place the controversial and unpopular Sharon. But because Israel's parliament, the Knesset, had not been dissolved, Sharon was forced to cobble together a government from politicians elected on Barak's coattails.

Sharon assembled the largest government in Israel's history. Seventy-seven of the 120 Knesset members are part of the governing coalition, which includes parties from the far left to the far right. At the core are Sharon's Likud and the left-wing Labor party, formally leaderless but actually headed by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Sharon has been the most persistent critic of the Oslo peace process since it started in 1993. Peres created Oslo and remains its most ardent advocate. Today nearly everyone in Israel views as a failure the attempt to appease Arafat by giving him dictatorial power over three million Palestinians and a 70,000-man army with which to suppress them and attack Israelis.

Even so, it enhances Peres's power that he is the only member of the government still publicly committed to Oslo. This is because a national unity government is thought to be a crucial strategic asset in the nation's struggle for international approval and support. It has also muted internecine political warfare and helped unite a fractious people. And it has been very good to Ariel Sharon. The unity government is essential to Sharon's political survival, and keeping the Labor party inside the government has become Sharon's abiding preoccupation.

If the government fell, the country would hold new elections, and Sharon's political career would end with his defeat in a nominating primary. As Sharon knows, Likud party regulars are clamoring to dump him in favor of the charismatic Netanyahu, who leads Sharon in party polls by about two to one. Sharon is so fixated on preventing Netanyahu's return that his critics charge he is willing to pay almost any price to keep Peres in power. The price Peres appears to have demanded is Sharon's agreement to resurrect Arafat and revive Oslo.

But if Sharon has indeed capitulated to demands for more negotiations with, or concessions to, Arafat, that is nothing new. On the contrary, it is typical. And every time Sharon has demanded anything of Peres or Arafat, he has quickly backed down.