Less than a week ago, Ariel Sharon was Israel’s most powerful prime minister since the fabled David Ben-Gurion. All polls showed his Kadima Party sweeping the upcoming election with 40-42 seats, more than twice either of its two nearest rivals.
Within Kadima, the prime minister was not only first among equals, but absolute king. According to the party by-laws, he, and he alone, would determine the placement on the party’s Knesset list. Thus every single MK elected under Kadima’s banner would owe his or her political career to Ariel Sharon alone.
Just a few years ago, Sharon’s current popularity would have been unthinkable. An independent judicial commission, convened in the wake of the Sabra and Shatilla massacres during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, found him unfit to serve as Defense Minister, and he was forced to resign. Signs carried in Peace Now demonstrations at the time proclaimed him "Sharon the Murderer," and for the next twenty years he remained the great bete-noir of the Israeli Left.
But the man was as survivor – a survivor of many intense battles in Israel’s first four wars, in all of which he played a major role, and many dangerous missions in between as the commander of elite anti-terrorist units. His daring charge across the Suez in 1973 is credited by many military experts with having turned the tide of the war in Israel’s favor. Had he not been successful it is quite likely that he would have been court-martialed for disobeying orders. Respect for higher authority was never one of Sharon’s trademarks.
He survived the death of a son in a gunshot accident, and the loss of one wife in a car crash and another to cancer. In recent years, the whiff of scandal has hung perpetually about Sharon and his sons. Both Gilad and Omri have been the subject of criminal investigations. The latter was convicted of fraud and forced to resign from the Knesset for his efforts as head of his father’s prime ministerial campaign.
Yet not once did Sharon ever show any signs that the pressure was getting to him. In every political confrontation, his opponents blinked first and those who did not blink found themselves flattened.
With the passage of time, the hair grew white, the face fleshier, the twinkle in the eye more pronounced, until the old warrior took on the appearance of a benevolent grandfather. But no one doubted that he was still the toughest guy on the block. And most Israelis felt safer knowing that their fate was in the hands of someone with a steady hand.
For make no mistake about it, Israel faces great dangers. At the top of the list is the prospect of nuclear arms in the hands of Iranian mullahs, who have repeatedly boasted that Iran could survive a nuclear exchange with Israel. It is far from clear that Israel has the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program, spread out over many, deeply buried sites. And if Israel does become the Western world’s shikyingel
to take out the Iranian nuclear program, it can count on a pounding in return by Iranian conventional missiles, which could cost Israel thousands of lives. In short, any decision to attack Iran would be a very difficult one. And most Israelis felt more comfortable knowing that Sharon would be the one making it.
Israel is also being constantly tested by Palestinian missiles from Gaza and Hizbullah missiles from Lebanon. The former are getting ever closer to strategic locations, such as Ashkelon’s oil refineries, and more sophisticated weaponry is pouring into the Gaza Strip over the porous border between Gaza and Egypt .
In the long months leading up to the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon revealed little of his long-range thinking vis-à-vis possible security threats after Israel’s withdrawal. But there are few in Israel who doubt that Sharon was fully aware that Gaza would likely descend into anarchy and heightened terrorist activity. And if he did, they are confident that the brutal warrior, who tamed Gaza a number of times in the past, had a plan in his pocket for dealing with that eventuality. The questions now are: Does whoever succeeds Sharon know the plan? And if he does, will he have the courage to implement it?
Sharon’s sudden departure from the political scene leaves most Israelis doubly disoriented. First, there is the horror that always watching the high and mighty brought low in an instant. And second, there is the fear that comes with the loss of the figure that they most trusted with his hand on the rudder in turbulent waters.
THAT IS NOT TO SAY all Israelis were overjoyed by the prospect of Sharon emerging from the next election as Israel’s undisputed strongman. The national religious community has not forgotten nor forgiven him for the Gaza withdrawal. The way that opponents of the withdrawal were treated as ideological criminals prior to the withdrawal and the treatment of the evacuees subsequently has caused many in that camp to view Sharon as their arch-enemy.
Prior to Sharon’s stroke, the chareidi press was filled with ominous stories of the 100-day plan that Kadima intended to implement after the elections. Reports emerging from the inner circles of Kadima spoke of a group drunk with its own power, and eager to turn Israel, at long last, into a "normal" – i.e., less Jewish -- country.
Among the plans high on the agenda of the next government, according to reports in the chareidi press, were the revamping of the electoral system to something more akin to the American model, completion of a constitution, and reexamination of the educational system, including the large degree of independence granted to the chareidi educational system. At a meeting with the former mayor of Bnei Brak, Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv commented, "If Sharon’s party wins forty seats, there is a danger of a great disaster for Judaism." Kadima would only be a larger Shinui, Rav Elyashiv is reported to have said.
How credible are those news reports? On the one hand, Sharon has never shown the same animus to religious Jews and all things Jewish as Tommy Lapid. He has never run a campaign designed to arouse visceral hatred of chareidim, as Shinui and Meretz have. And Sharon has stressed many times that he views himself first as a Jew and only secondly as an Israeli.
On the other hand, it is clear that Shinui was Sharon’s preferred coalition partner at the outset of his second term as prime minister, and that he was eager to avoid a coalition in which the chareidi parties would hold the decisive balance of power and thus be able to constantly threaten him with their departure from the government.
Perhaps Sharon never resorted to anti-religious appeals because those appeals would have turned off the Likud’s traditional Sephardi supporters. (Meretz and Shinui drew almost all their support from upscale Ashkenazim.) Nevertheless Likud’s alliance with Shinui at the outset of the present government, and the frequent calls heard in all the major parties for a government coalition without any religious parties, have permanently destroyed the illusion that the average Likud politician (many of whom followed Sharon into Kadima) is more favorably disposed to religion than his more left-wing counterparts.
Almost certainly the temptation to dramatic electoral reform would have proved irresistible to Sharon. He has always been impatient with restraints on his power. Recently released archival material suggests that he considered the possibility of a military coup on the eve of the 1967 war when he viewed the political leadership as dithering.
It has long been the dream of Israel’s larger parties to rid the Knesset of the smaller parties. Until now, they have always been held back by coalition politics. But current polls show Kadima, Labor, and Likud winning close to two-thirds of the seats in the next Knesset, which would provide them with an unprecedented opportunity to either dramatically raise the electoral threshold or switch to a system of single-member districts. Either course would likely reduce religious representation in the Knesset to a handful or less (though under the single-district plan religious voters would still have influence in districts with closely contested seats.)
The completion of a written constitution has long been one of the chief ambitions of Israel’s secular elites. Uriel Reichmann, who joined Kadima with the promise that he would be the next Education Minister, has been promoting his own draft constitution for nearly two decades. The great fear in the chareidi world is that a written constitution would increase even further the power of the Supreme Court, already considered the most activist in the world. The Court has consistently ruled against Jewish interests – e.g. granting increasing recognition to heterodox conversions, striking down municipal bans on the sale of pork, preventing the Israel Electric Corporation from taking into account Shabbos desecration in deciding when to transport a massive electrical turbine.
Most worrisome to the chareidi population is that the Supreme Court would strike down entirely all draft deferments for yeshiva students, especially if "equality" were one of the values specifically anchored in the new constitution. In a recent interview, Reichmann stressed the importance of equality of service for all sectors of the population.
Throughout his career, Sharon primarily focused upon security issues, not constitutional ones. And as a military man, he had little interest in burdeing the IDF with thousands of chareidi recruits, with all their needs. Nor is it clear that he would have wished to provoke a massive confrontation over issues of state and religion at the same time he was embarking on new diplomatic initiatives.
Nevertheless these issues are clearly important to many of Kadima’s insiders, no matter from where on the political spectrum they arrived in the party, and they would likely have pushed Sharon forward in these areas. In any event, if the Gaza withdrawal or its successor proves unsuccessful and Israel’s major population centers come under increasing missile attack from the Palestinian territories, a "civil revolution," such as that called for by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak after the failure of Camp David, is the time-proven method for distracting attention from diplomatic and security failures.
The final question to be asked is: Will things be any better with Ehud Olmert in charge? There is no love lost between Olmert and the chareidi community. Despite being elected mayor of Jerusalem only because of strong chareidi support, after he left the mayor’s office, Olmert played the major role in negotiating Shinui’s entrance into Sharon’s second government.
Current polls show little diminution of support for Kadima with Olmert at its head, but most experts expect that to change in the course of the campaign. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Olmert is that he is neither as popular nor as powerful as his predecessor.
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