Should anyone still have doubts about the political transformation of Ariel Sharon from stalwart of Israel's nationalist Right to paragon of its appeasing Left, Ori Nir dispels them in today's article, "Israel Reaching Out to Dovish Groups In Bid To Counteract Conservatives; Seeks Support For Gaza Plan."
"As part of a recently launched campaign to neutralize Jewish and evangelical opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan," Nir notes, "Israeli diplomats are reaching out to liberal American organizations." Specifically, the Sharon government's ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, speaks on March 14 for Americans for Peace Now; and its vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert, delivers the keynote address at the Israel Policy Forum's annual dinner on June 9.
Leftist groups, for their part, are crowing. Here is Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, referring to Sharon: "You've had someone who's been the leader of the Israeli right wing recognize the validity of some of the arguments that Peace Now has been making for several years, and start to take action on the recognition of that validity. There's a certain sense of inevitability in terms of some of the things we're talking about."
As for Israel diplomats, "Counteracting politically conservative Jews and evangelical Christians "is the number-one priority on the agenda of the consulates at the moment, and it's the task that is keeping me the busiest," says the government's consul general in New York, Arye Mekel. He adds that Israeli diplomats in the United States will redouble their efforts in coming weeks to neutralize those American opponents of the Gaza disengagement plan.
What next? Sharon speaking for the International Solidarity Movement? (March 11, 2005)
March 16, 2005 update: A hint of the tactics to come are buried in a JTA report on how The Israel Project plans to improve Israel's standing in the United States:
The group plans to pitch that message to the part of the media, such as CNN, that appeal to liberal viewers. To media seen as having more conservative viewers, such as Fox News, the group will steer clear of discussing disengagement, focusing instead on the values shared by Israel and the United States.
In other words, the pitch will target liberals. Conservatives will be by-passed.
May 6, 2005 update: To see this pitch in its full glory, read "Israel's Disengagement Plan: Renewing the Peace Process," distributed by the Israeli foreign ministry as a glossy English-language pamphlet on April 20 and posted on its website May 1. David Bedein of the Israel Resource News Agency characterizes the brochure thus: it
intermingles the philosophy of unilateral disengagement with superlatives about Israel's desire for peace and Israel's expectations from the new Palestinian leadership. The brochure goes so far as to feature smiling pictures of the EU- funded left wing Israeli-Palestinian organization known as "The Parents Circle", captioned with "young faces of hope". … The publication and distribution of the premises and text of the Disengagement Plan should be viewed as an important public service, since most people, even in Israel, have never had the opportunity to read the Disengagement Plan and the reasoning behind it.,
Bedein then goes on, in "Challenging Eighteen Premises of An official Publication of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs," posted today, to shred the document's leftist assertions apart, point by point.
June 2, 2005 update: In an interesting analysis, "IPF: back in the center," Ron Kampeas of JTA documents how the Israel Policy Forum, long shunted to the side line of American Jewish politics, "is making its way back to the center." He documents how the IPF, "long seen as backing the Labor Party in Israel and top-heavy with Democrats in the United States, has cultivated close relations with both the Likud in Israel and Republicans here."
June 9, 2005 update: As noted above, Israeli vice prime minister Ehud Olmert delivered the keynote address at the Israel Policy Forum's annual dinner today, and it makes for interesting reading. My analysis of the speech can be found at "The Gaza Withdrawal – A Dreamy Return to Oslo," but the politics of the event are worth noting here. Olmert began by acknowledging the "very strange experience" of being at an IPF dinner but assures his hosts "I am very, very happy that I am here. And I am very, very happy that you invited me," to a round of applause. He went on to acknowledge that "there are many people sitting here in this hall that feel very strange that a special letter of Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, is read in honor of the event of Israel Policy Forum," but that "only shows that things are changing."
August 4, 2005 update: "Not every politician visiting Paris gets the full French treatment: honor guards with their plumed helmets, the military defile and the three-star state banquets held in Louis XV-style settings," writes Daniel Schwammenthal in the Wall Street Journal.
The departed Yasser Arafat comes to mind, France's fellow peacenik Gerhard Schröder, or a few francophone African dictators. What a surprise then to see these honors being bestowed last week upon none other than Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. … No other man—with the exception of the sitting U.S. president maybe—is more reviled by European and French left-wing "elites" than Mr. Sharon. And make no mistake, Mr. Chirac is one of Europe's most leftist leaders, his "conservative" label notwithstanding.
Aug. 29, 2005 update: (1) James Zogby begs to differ. In an analysis today on the Arab American Institute website, "Sharon is Winning," he makes the case for the Israeli leader being the same rightist as of old:
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have succeeded in implementing another phase in his plan to unilaterally impose an Israeli solution to the Question of Palestine. For four years now, Sharon has been moving methodically toward this end. On the ground, he has acted quite deliberately to define the limits of what might be available to the Palestinians. … The key for Sharon was that this be done unilaterally, on his terms, and not through any negotiating process with Palestinians. …
Last week, one respected Israeli analyst who reported on these very moves concluded this piece noting that, "While the Left stands and cheers for its new hero, Sharon is taking steps to complete his move, and create facts in another place. Like a practiced magician, he is using the sleight of one hand, counting on the audience not to see what the other hand is doing."
Comment: I used to subscribe to this sleight-of-hand school of thought (see "Reading Sharon's Mind") but long ago gave it up when it failed to explain what was happening.
(2) Nissan Ratzlav-Katz provides some useful history today on the evolution of the Gaza withdrawal.
- By the end of 2002, new [Israeli parliamentary] elections were called again. This time, [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon opposed the newly-chosen Labor party leader Amram Mitzna, a former mayor of Haifa. Mitzna's campaign focused on the promise of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the destruction of Jewish towns there. Appearing on the Politika talk-show on November 27, 2002, Mitzna promised to "disengage" from Judea, Samaria and Gaza areas if elected. Within a year of the election, he said, he would withdraw Israel from Gaza, uprooting all Jewish communities there, and begin the process of uprooting "isolated settlements" elsewhere.
- Reacting to the Mitzna campaign, Ariel Sharon stated publicly on multiple occasions that unilateral withdrawal was both dangerous and un-Zionist. On April 23, 2002, addressing a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, he repeated, again, "The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Negba [a Negev town] and Tel Aviv." He would not be uprooting any communities, he declared, including "isolated" ones. For good measure, Sharon further explained, "Such an evacuation would encourage terrorism and bring pressure on us."
- The Likud platform, likewise, read: "The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting."
- In January of 2003, voters sent Mitzna and the Labor party as a whole to an unprecedented defeat. Ariel Sharon's Likud won more seats than it had ever won before.
Comment: I am particularly struck by Sharon's statement that "The fate of Netzarim is the fate of … Tel Aviv." Hamas and other Palestinians no doubt enthusiastically agree with him.
Oct. 17, 2005 update: Hirsh Goodman of the Jerusalem Report provides a telling vignette:
Yossi Beilin, the head of the left-wing Yahad Party, and his colleagues who put together the Geneva peace initiative called a rally in support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Saturday night, September 24. About 4,000 showed up outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, many of them kids from the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and waving red banners, members of the Young Communist League of Israel. … The rest of those assembled were the regular Peace Now types and supporters of Yahad, as Meretz is now called
Comment: We're talking not just far Left here, but communist Left.
Nov. 21, 2005 update: Not surprisingly, Sharon has found Likud no longer to his views; today he bolted the party and established a new one, named Kadima. Presenting itself as centrist, I suspect it will in fact drift to the left. Nov. 24, 2005 update: Caroline Glick becomes perhaps the first analyst to agree with me about Sharon's transformation, writing that he "abandoned the policies of his own rightist Likud political base in favor of those of the radical Left." She also calls him "one of the most deceitful political leaders Israel has ever had."
Nov. 29, 2005 update: Gideon Saar, a Likud member of parliament, noted Kadima's leftward tilt. "We see that [new Kadima member] Chaim Ramon [formerly of Labor] even invited the Meretz party to join and now there's [Dalia] Itzik and [probably Shimon] Peres - this all shows that Sharon's party is really a left-wing party, and not just ‘Likud B.' … Kadima's platform, as released yesterday, is exactly the same as Labor's in terms of diplomatic issues."
Dec. 1, 2005 update: Likud party leaders decided in a meeting on Nov. 30 that Shimon Peres's endorsement of Ariel Sharon is their ticket back from the sidelines: "Vote Sharon, get Peres," will be the party's new slogan.
Dec. 5, 2005 update: Newsweek's Dan Ephron asks why Sharon left Likud, which he dominated, to found a new party. "He's prepared for a major accommodation in the [occupied] territories that Likud could not accept," Ehud Olmert explained. What kind of accommodation? Here Ephron gets an advisor named Kalman Gayer to spill the beans.
The picture he paints is strikingly similar to the proposal Israel's dovish Labor government made at Camp David five years ago, an offer Sharon denounced at the time as "dangerous." In theory, Gayer says, Sharon would accept a Palestinian state in Gaza and 90 percent of the West Bank, and a compromise on Jerusalem, in exchange for peace. But the Israeli leader does not believe Palestinians will be able to deliver peace or make other compromises - like forgoing the right of refugees to return to their old homes in Israel - in his lifetime (Sharon is 78). In the meantime, Sharon wants to "lay the contours of an agreement with the Palestinians," according to Gayer, by creating a Palestinian state in half the West Bank and implementing confidence-building measures.
Comment: It is astonishing that any Israeli leader could want to return to Ehud Barak's discredited ideas of 2000. It is doubly astonishing that it should be Ariel Sharon that would return the country to that nightmare.
Dec. 13, 2005 update: Two weeks later, Sharon has issued a denial of the above quotation.
The remarks attributed to Kalman Gayer absolutely contradict my positions and my views. If those remarks were indeed made, they were made by Kalman Gayer alone and they are complete nonsense. United Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital forever. The Roadmap is the diplomatic plan that will lead Israel in the coming years and whoever says otherwise does so on his own behalf and does so in complete contradiction of my position; this is how these remarks must be treated.
Comment: "Complete nonsense?" We shall see.
Dec. 14, 2005 update: In the middle of a speech about traffic accident prevention, Sharon veered off into a tirade against everyone who "slanders, tramples and scandalizes" his work, sabotages it, and engages in incitement and slander. Then he got specific:
The height of absurdity happened yesterday, when slogans were heard from every direction claiming that I intend to divide Jerusalem. There was no such a thing. This is nonsense and lies and those who exploit this for political purposes are well aware of that. United Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel. Others can talk. I, however, intend to continue to act and ensure that it will remain so forever.
Comment: One wonders how, without blushing, Sharon still expect Israelis to take him at his word.
Dec. 17, 2005 update: Sharon distanced himself from Kalman Gayer's comments about dividing Jerusalem, but today's news brings further evidence that that is precisely what he has in mind: Tzipi Livni serves as Sharon's minister of justice in the current government and is a leading ally of his, as symbolized by her being entrusted to outline Kadima's platform. Therefore, what Livni says to some degree can be assumed to reflect Sharon's thinking. Asked today whether she would support relinquishing parts of Jerusalem in the framework of a settlement with the Palestinians, she refused to reply.
Jan. 2, 2006 update: Ma`ariv reports that Sharon plans (as phrased in a summary provided by IMRA) "a massive retreat from the West Bank to ‘final borders' which will include the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israelis from communities after the elections when, as expected, it remains clear that the Road Map is at a stalemate because of the failure of the PA to fulfill its obligations to fight the terror infrastructure."
Jan. 4, 2006 update: Sharon pretty clearly signals that he has further withdrawals in mind in the course of a speech today:
I think that the steps we have undertaken, including the Disengagement Plan, which was very difficult, have improved Israel's economic situation and international standing. I intend to continue on this path in accordance with the diplomatic plan that I have implemented. Also in the new government that I will set up, I intend to continue on the same path and I am certain that this will contribute both to Israel's security and to its economy, and it seems to me that that we must all make a great effort to continue towards our goals.
Jan. 5, 2006 update: Sharon suffered a massive brain hemorrhage late yesterday and is hanging on to life. The response of European politicians to his condition confirms the perception of his political transformation, for just a few years earlier they had looked upon him very negatively.
- Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel: "Ariel Sharon plays a particularly important role in the quest for lasting peace in the Middle East."
- British foreign secretary Jack Straw: Sharon is "a towering figure not only in Israel but in the whole of the region" and HIS attempts to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict "earned him huge respect across the world."
- French president Jacques Chirac of France hoped "the courageous initiatives that Mr. Sharon embarked on - which were praised by the entire international community - will continue."
- Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi: "This is a very painful event on a human level and an absolutely negative one on the political level."
- Swedish foreign minister Laila Freivalds said her government was "depressed" upon hearing about Sharon's stroke. "Sharon is a very important person right now, not least in the ongoing process to find a peaceful solution to the [Arab-Israeli] conflict."
- Chatham House analyst Richard Whitman: "Ariel Sharon plays a particularly important role in the quest for lasting peace in the Middle East."
Jan. 9, 2006 update: In a powerful piece, "The fictitious ‘third way'," Caroline Glick closely examines Sharon's transformation into a left-winger. I'll quote generous extracts, but the entire piece deserves reading. Glick begins by noting that several conservative analysts have praised the prime minister for redefining the center of Israeli politics. To this, she replies:
It is true that Sharon restructured the political map of Israel over the past two years. But he did not do so by blazing a new path, with a new vision for Israeli politics, society and security. Sharon redefined Israel's political map by embracing the Israeli Left. And in so doing, as one top military official dolefully put it to me in November, "Sharon brought post-Zionism into the mainstream of Israeli public discourse."
For years Israel has been divided between Right and Left. The Right argues that given Arab rejectionism of Israel's right to exist, Israel must take all necessary measures to ensure that it is capable of defending itself, by itself, from all threats to its security. For its part the Left has claimed that Arab rejectionism of Israel is due to Israeli actions and, as a result, the Arabs can and ought to be appeased. To appease the Arabs the Left believes that Israel must transfer territory to the Palestinians and enable the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Then comes a particularly important insight:
Until September 2000, when PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat began the Palestinian terror war against Israel, the Israeli Left claimed that the appeasement of the Palestinians had to be conducted in the course of negotiations with the PLO. After its resounding electoral defeat in 2001, the Left updated its policy. The new policy of the Left was the unilateral surrender of territory to the Palestinians.
She then points to the right wing hero's mysterious turn leftward:
in 2003 Sharon won his smashing victory for the Likud after militarily reentering the cities of Judea and Samaria to fight terror, and ridiculing the irresponsibility of Labor's proposed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. And then Sharon - for reasons still unknown because Sharon himself refused to explain them - took a sharp leftward turn and adopted the very policies the Israeli electorate had just so resoundingly rejected. …
Sharon's rhetorical shift to the Left was followed by his policy shift in the same direction when, against the backdrop of ever-increasing Palestinian radicalization, he called for and carried out its reconfigured policy of appeasement by unilaterally surrendering Gaza and northern Samaria to Palestinian terrorists.
Glick then totes up the early costs of this shift, first in the security arena:
Like Rabin's leftward shift of a decade ago and its attendant handover of territory and power to Palestinian terrorist organizations, Sharon's policies have wrought terrible consequences for Israel's security. Last Friday, even Haaretz's leftist military commentator Amir Oren acknowledged that "the disengagement looked like a failed initiative in most of its aspects."
As IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz acknowledged last week, the army today is at a loss to find adequate responses to the post-withdrawal transformation of Gaza into the largest terrorist base in the Arab world. As well, with the acquisition of an arsenal of missiles and mortars, including Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles by the Palestinians, the security fences around both Gaza and Judea and Samaria, which have long been the Left's ultimate answer to Palestinian terrorism, have been proven to be colossally misguided.
And second in the domestic political context:
Sharon's personal prestige gave the Left a new lease on life, split the Right, delegitimized his political camp both domestically and internationally and weakened Israel's party system. Today, energized by Sharon's unraveling of the Right, Israel's Left has become ever more radicalized. … The large "centrist" faction Sharon is so hailed for having discovered is little more than a collection of leftists like Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon on the one hand, and opportunistic and non-ideological Likud members like acting premier Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on the other. Sharon has left no coherent vision for the state other than Peres's: further surrender to Palestinian terrorism based on the expulsion of thousands upon thousands of Jews from their homes, in the vain hope that strengthening the enemy will lessen the costs of its war on Israel.
Despite, it all, she concludes on an upbeat note, counting on reality eventually to intrude and teach its inevitable lessons:
Whatever the results of the coming post-Sharon elections may be, one thing is all but certain. Sharon's legacy of adopting the Left's vision of Israeli policy will eventually be abandoned. As was the case with Rabin and Barak before him, Sharon's adoption of the Left's view of Israel's security predicament, based as it is on false assumptions, will reach a point where its failure will no longer be deniable. When this occurs, Israeli voters will elect a rightist government. Hopefully when that happens, the Right will not be induced to repeat Sharon's mistakes.
Jan. 12, 2006 update: Dan Diker makes a valiant effort to redeem Sharon's reputation, arguing that his statements did not suggest he would pull back from at least 90 percent of the West Bank. To which I respond, even if Diker is correct on that one issue, the larger picture –such as painted by Glick above – finds Sharon finally and irredeemably on the far left.
Jan. 28, 2006 update: In a fascinating bit of historical research, Rael Jean Isaac of American Friends for a Safe Israel reminds us of Ariel Sharon's nascent political career and the Shlomzion Party over thirty years ago.
In 1973 Sharon entered politics and through the force of his energy and personality, created the Likud, welding together the chief opposition (to Labor) parties. Disappointed when the new party still failed to topple Labor, Sharon left politics to become military advisor to then Prime Minister Rabin. Dissatisfied in this role, he returned to the Likud, where he sought to displace Menachem Begin as head of the party. When that failed Sharon decided to create his own political party.
To general astonishment, Sharon reached out to a man on the far left of the political spectrum, asking Yossi Sarid to take the second place on Shlomzion's list in the 1977 elections. The new party advocated negotiations with the PLO and the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria (Sharon wanted Israel to retain control of security arrangements). The enormity of this can only be appreciated in the context of the time: in 1977 Arafat and his PLO were anathema to both Labor and Likud which viewed them as murderers to be hunted down. The well known left-wing journalist Amos Kenan became Sharon's spokesman. Even long-time champion of a Palestinian state Uri Avnery considered linking up with Shlomzion, whose very name "Peace of Zion" suggested the new orientation. When negotiations with the far-left failed to mobilize sufficient support (Sarid turned Sharon down and an effort to meet with Arafat fizzled), Sharon turned on a dime and now portrayed himself as to the right of the Likud, calling for expansion of Jewish settlements.
When Sharon realized that his political acrobatics were not paying off in public support, he sought to return to the Likud (to which only weeks earlier he had vowed publicly never to return, regardless of what happened to his new party). But although Begin was amenable, the party was not and Sharon was forced to go to the elections on the Shlomzion list. This election turned out to be the revolutionary upset which finally toppled Labor as Israel's ruling party and installed Menachem Begin as Prime Minister. Shlomzion only won two seats. Begin welcomed back to the fold a repentant Sharon who promptly dismantled Shlomzion. There was from now on no left-wing rhetoric: seeking to position himself as the ailing Begin's heir, Sharon henceforth portrayed himself as an ardent supporter of Herut ideology. (He even voted against the Camp David agreement with Egypt, although he subsequently undertook the destruction of Yamit for the Begin government.)
The brief saga of Shlomzion nonetheless offered fair warning: one could not count on Sharon's political principles should a very different set of ideas come to seem to him expedient. The episode foretold the future in another respect as well. At a press conference for the newly emergent Shlomzion, Sharon declared that "for him a political party was only a means" and if good ideas could not be fulfilled within a given framework, it was perfectly appropriate to create another. It was scarcely surprising then that almost thirty years later Sharon should once again abandon the Likud to create the Kadima Party, giving him more latitude to achieve his current "good idea" of "disengagement."