The most enduring lesson from my years practicing law was that experience counts far more than academic intelligence.You may have graduated from the top law school in the country, but without your secretary guiding you every step of the way, you have no clue as to how to file the simplest motion in the lowest municipal court. And any experienced attorney who graduated in the middle of his class from the local law school can run rings around you.
Watching our new prime minister take charge brought this old lesson back to mind.
For the first time in years, one has the feeling that an adult is running the country, not a precocious hotshot. The first signs of the difference began to emerge in the election campaign. While the Sharon campaign was not exactly rich in intellectual fare, it was at least refreshingly free of the schoolyard braggadacio of recent Israeli campaigns.
True, Sharon is not exactly photogenic or silver-tongued, and so a campaign based on personal charisma was not in the cards. Yet one senses a deeper explanation for Sharon’s campaign. He is not an impetuous youth eager to leave his mark. He did not need to become prime minister to secure his place in Israeli history. His daring counter-offensive across the Suez Canal in 1973 swung the momentum in Israel’s favor on the Southern front and changed the course of the Yom Kippur war.
Sharon does not need to talk about how tough he is to convince himself no less than others; he has proved it time and again.
During the coalition negotiations, Sharon showed himself a master negotiator, with clear goals and the patience to get there. With great magnaminity, he gave the routed Labor Party the Defense and Foreign Ministeries, and six smaller ones. By convincing his own party to swallow this bitter pill, he ended up with a like-minded Defense Minister and a Foreign Minister who knows that Sharon has been around too long for him to conduct an independent foreign policy under his nose, as he has under previous prime ministers. (At the same time, Israel will benefit from the dovish Peres’ international prestige, and Peres, who is not yet ready for pasture, will watch his step.)
The country gained the broad national unity government it craved. Likud retained the crucial Finance Ministry and every ministry setting the social agenda. By deliberately refusing to be forthcoming with several natural coalition partners, who were left out n the cold, Sharon sent a message that he will be the one dictating the terms of the coalition.
Compare the sure way Sharon conducted coalition negotiations to his predecessor’s manner of negotiating with the Palestinians. The latter’s techniques included offering the Palestinians three villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem, while Israeli soldiers were being shot at, as a ``good will gesture." He did not so much negotiate as lay down all his cards at the beginning, and expect Arafat to agree to his perfect logic.
Most importantly, we finally have a prime minister who conveys the sense that he has thought long and hard about what he wants to do as prime minister, not just how to win and retain power. William Safire wrote recently of the remarkable consistency of the strategic vision Sharon has laid out in conversations over twenty years.
The small entourage with which Sharon arrived in Washington suggests that substance, rather than the trappings of power, are paramount for him. He has shown himself capable of sustaining friendships and loyalties over decades and across party lines, something that is impossible when power is the only goal and trust is absent. (Which is not to say that the way to the prime minister’s office was not paved with a host of low political deals).
Sharon is far from perfect. He is too narrowly focused on security issues and has shown little understanding of the dangers to Israeli democracy posed by the entrenched judicial and media elites. He seems inclined to leave those elites safely ensconsced, as long as they do not challenge his security policies, which, in any event, enjoy a wide national consensus.
Whatever Sharon’s faults, however, Israelis at least sense a calm, steady hand at the rudder. Call it the revenge of the grownups.