The Magazine

Ariel Bombs

The Israeli prime minister's fatal hesitation.

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By TOM ROSE
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TO UNDERSTAND WHY Ariel Sharon's first year as Israel's prime minister may not be followed by a second, one need look no further back than February 21. After months of virtual silence, Sharon addressed his people in a nationally televised address following the worst week of violence in the 16 months since Yasser Arafat launched his terrorist war against Israeli civilians.

What did the legendary warrior turned prime minister plan to do to fight the terrorism that was engulfing the country? Sharon had been elected in February 2001 by one of the most lopsided margins in Israeli history, crushing Ehud Barak after the disastrous policy of appeasing Arab and Palestinian demands had exploded in Barak's face in September 2000. The outcome of the election had very little to do with Sharon himself and everything to do with the actions of others, especially Barak, Arafat, and Bill Clinton.

Sharon's campaign--foreshadowing his premiership--was largely invisible. He said little and promised less. His few public appearances were tightly scripted to keep him far from the press. This defensive strategy was wise. Why risk a huge and growing lead by exposing a gaffe-prone candidate who just six months before had been considered unelectable and hugely unpopular?

But what worked in February 2001 was proving ruinous in February 2002. Leaders are expected to lead, especially in times of crisis, and Israel's crisis has been getting graver. The days leading up to Sharon's February 21 address were filled with despondency and gloom. Normally resilient Israelis, who pride themselves on needing nothing, least of all hand-holding, from a political class they hold in contempt, were eager to hear from their leader that their cause was not lost, that Israel was not a ship without a captain.

Rather than address the people directly from his office, Sharon opted to speak in the Israeli equivalent of the White House press room, addressing a roomful of journalists. He approached the podium looking tired, even slightly disoriented. It was but the prelude.

No, Sharon confessed, he didn't have a plan to stop Palestinian terrorism, and Israelis who criticized him for it were disloyal. Nothing could be done, he implied, because his hands were tied by forces much stronger than he. Stammering through his text, a prime minister once synonymous with bullish Zionism delivered one of the most devastating lines in the history of Israeli politics: "Israel is not collapsing." His speech designed to outline his government's approach to a war against Israelis never used the word "victory."

That Sharon's speech had been a debacle was immediately reflected in the polls. The extraordinarily large television audience, which had come looking to be uplifted, was left reeling. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, a senior Bush administration official wondered whether Israel's lack of resolve, personified in Sharon, weakened Israel as an American ally. Had Sharon been prime minister of Britain in 1940, one Israeli commentator remarked matter-of-factly in his post-address analysis, Britain would have fallen to the Nazis.

Before the night was out, Sharon's approval rating had dropped below 35 percent. Commentators were speculating how long the country could tolerate him at the helm.

In the days since February 21, Israelis have seen fresh evidence that it isn't their country that is rotting, just their leadership. While still not permitted to end the Arafat regime or to destroy the terrorist organizations at his command, the Israeli Defense Forces have continued to demonstrate tactical proficiency in the limited operations to capture or kill specific terrorist leaders on which they have been permitted to embark.

But if Sharon withholds the order to destroy Arafat's regime, this is not because he thinks it can't be done, or because he thinks it wrong. All evidence leads to the conclusion that Sharon, of all people, realizes the only path to peace is the destruction, by force if necessary, of terrorist organizations and infrastructure. He knows that movement toward any lasting settlement is impossible while the Palestinians are led by a dictator committed to Israel's destruction and bred on a culture that glorifies hatred and murder. Sharon's own deputy prime minister, Natan Sharansky, vigorously argues that Israel must demand a fundamental change in the way Palestinians govern themselves in order to have any hope of solving this conflict.