Tel Aviv — The 74-year-old Prime Minister of Israel is built like some sort of heavily armored mobile weapon: amazingly broad shoulders, thick-set body, low to the ground; he lumbers through the crowds on the campaign trail, which will end on January 28 with his certain reelection. Ariel Sharon has been one of Israel’s great generals, a soldier since 1946. When we hear him on American television his deep voice is usually intoning grave judgments and stern warnings. So you will understand my surprise when in conversation I find his voice demure, his demeanor modest, his handshake firm, but his hand smooth, not the leathery hand of the soldier and farmer he has been
The ex-general and full-time politician is a distingué gentleman and very likable. He asks the first question, “How long have you been in Israel?” Then, “How do you like Israel?” And he makes the point that so many Israelis make to Americans, “It is a very small country.” By that I think he means it has to remain vigilant all the time.
Sharon has overthrown one of my most deeply held prejudices, to wit: generals make lousy pols, at least in democratic dither. They are too impatient. They expect their orders to be carried out promptly. If not, they quit. Think of de Gaulle. Most people believe he was politically beaten in “the events” of May 1968. Not at all, he spent another year in a protracted pout. The next spring he put up a mundane referendum and when it lost simply quit. Sharon has proved to be a masterful pol for 28 years, one year longer than his military career. Doubtless he lost many minor scuffles through those years, but in vigorous old age — reminiscent of Ronald Reagan — he became prime minister and a tremendous political success with the electorate at a very difficult time for Israel, both economically and militarily.
In war he was famed for catching his opponents off balance, as he did in 1967 when he frustrated the Egyptian army in Sinai and again in 1973 when he crossed the Suez Canal and attacked the Egyptian rear, bringing confusion to two Egyptian armies. His effervescent senior public affairs adviser, Ra’anan Gissin, will tell you that Sharon has brought the same tactic to politics, seen most recently when he snookered Benjamin Netanyahu, the main opponent in his Likud Party, into joining his government as foreign minister. That ploy severely compromised Netanyahu, whom he defeated as party leader by a vast majority just a couple of weeks ago.
In his speech last night to the 2002 Israel Business Conference, the second speech of his that I have witnessed in a week, he rambled diffusely over his main campaign points. He wants a government of broad-based national unity. He wants a budget passed that will not increase the government’s large deficit. It must cut expenses, and use loan guarantees from the United States to encourage private investment. Interestingly to me, the Israelis are still confused as to how growth is achieved. In speeches preceding Sharon’s here last night, all from famous profs and business leaders, I heard almost nothing about cutting taxes, rather sonorities about improving education and “leadership.” Israel’s rate of productivity growth is an appalling .5%. Sharon did say something about the need to cut taxes. I hope he noted the applause that followed. Now if only he could get a supply-sider in here to formulate a proper cut on marginal tax rates, which are murderous.
Of course, the most important matters that Sharon addresses are war on terror and a political settlement with the Palestinians. Unlike his opponent in the Labor party who will simply walk out of most of the West Bank if the Palestinians do not settle with Israel, Sharon is holding out for what sounds to me like a complete reform in the Palestinian Authority. He accepts the Bush Administration’s “road map” through negotiations to peace and like President George W. Bush will not negotiate with Palestinians who have “blood on their hands” and records of corruption. A fact rarely noted in the United States is that many in the Palestinian Authority are mere Arab Mafiosi. If Sharon’s proposals sound grim to some, they sound perfectly sensible to me. Moreover I get the impression that he is guardedly optimistic. As his top aide, Gissin, says, this is “an exciting” moment. He is talking about “the post-war prospects” for the spread of democracy in the Middle East. This is, Gissin says, “a great moment in history.
It might surprise some observers that Sharon is so strongly favored in this election. He came to power two years ago promising economic improvement and peace. Both promises have been thwarted by events. But he has enormous trust among the people. Wherever I have gone this week ordinary people have stressed to me that they do not “know what we will do.” The future punctuated by suicide bombers in their midst and Saddam Hussein over the horizon is uncertain to them. Sharon is a credible leader. He is from the founding generation that established the state of Israel, fought back the invasion of Arab armies menacing Jewish settlers, and won repeated victories building the Israeli Defense Force into the strongest military in the region. He is “the elder of the tribe,” says Gissin. He has the authority “to turn the country around” and to suggest “painful concessions” for “true and real peace.” What is more, he is a gentleman.
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