Analysis: Inept analogy

Since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 'big-bang' bolt from the Likud, comparisons to David Ben-Gurion's break from Mapai have abounded. Are the two splits really similar?

December 1, 2005 23:07
ariel sharon ponders finger at mouth 88

arik sharon main 88. (photo credit: )

Few may realize it, but it was prime minister David Ben-Gurion who took maverick officer Ariel Scheinerman under his wing in the early 1950s, and shielded him from loathing IDF peers. In 1953, Ben-Gurion decreed that the name Scheinerman was unbefitting. "You were born in the Sharon," BG said, "and Sharon will be your new name." Were it not for BG's personal backing, it is likely that Sharon wouldn't have come this far. Nor would we be inundated with the comparisons between the two leaders that have been proliferating in the wake of Sharon's walkout from the Likud. Paradoxically, the most facile and popular inclination is to cite Ben-Gurion's angry 1965 departure from Mapai (Labor's original moniker). It is an analogy that aggrandizes Sharon by equating him with the nation's founder. Hence, the predilection of his most ardent boosters to promote the association with Israel's most powerful, fearless and unfailingly original elder statesman. Concomitantly, it's an analogy employed by certain pundits on the sidelines and by Sharon's political foes who seek to hone in on another aspect of Ben-Gurion's move - its failure. His Rafi list managed to secure only 10 Knesset seats, which in those days, given the "Old Man's" erstwhile glory, was an abysmal disappointment to him. He was out to wrest power from Mapai only to discover that, true to its image then, it was invincible. His assault on it proved to be more of a bother than a debacle. Yet, those who revive memory of Israel's highest-profile split thus far - whether with an eye to building Sharon up or diminishing him - are way off the mark. More often than not historical parallels are spurious. What renders them essentially invalid are the diverse backgrounds against which seemingly similar actions are played out. Those who use the Ben-Gurion example to claim that splits are doomed from their outset forget that at the time he created Rafi, BG was no longer prime minister and no longer Mapai boss. The party's massive octopus-like infrastructure, which effectively controlled every facet of Israeli life, was in other hands. BG was the outsider proverbially charging the Bastille. Sharon remains premier, in control of the vast machine of government and all the manipulation-potential that implies. He can, for instance, bestow perks upon anyone who curries his favor. That can work wonders. Moreover, it was clarified from the start that Sharon would make all decisions in his new party. Though he recently reintroduced a bill obliging all factions with more than 15 MKs to conduct primaries to elect Knesset candidates, Sharon evidently dismisses what he preaches. In Kadima, he'll do all the picking and ranking. All aspiring MKs must toe his line or lose out. The Likud, in contrast, will hold divisive leadership and Knesset primaries. Any defeated luminary is aware that Sharon's party remains a viable enticing option. Thereby, Sharon not only wields full control of his party, through his unchallengable supremacy in it, he can destabilize the Likud and also lure Laborites away - as he has been doing. Sharon, then, is in a significantly stronger starting-position than BG was. BUT THAT'S not all. What impelled each protagonist to seek a new political venture is of utmost importance. BG didn't break ideologically with Mapai. True, there were varying nuances about just how socialist it ought to be, with many of the Rafi crew espousing then-fashionable iconoclasm, but it was skin-deep. Mapai's red was fading anyway. BG was motivated by a personal feud he pursued with intense unabated obstinacy. The party - and the nation for that matter - could no longer abide it. BG was depicted as a monomaniac. His anti-Lavon vendetta, revolving around who ordered the ill-fated Cairo-bombing fiasco of more than a decade earlier, had by then nauseated public opinion. BG made himself a nuisance and was reviled, despite his genius and pluck. Not so Sharon, who succeeds in marketing himself as Israel's new hope - regardless of his part in numerous dubious episodes over the decades (from the retaliation raids he "unofficially expanded," to the Lebanon War he "unofficially expanded," and through political machinations that would have boggled even the astute Ben-Gurion). Sharon aggressed against his own party like no leader dared hitherto. He ran on one platform yet proceeded to implement the precise opposite of his undertakings to his voters. He ignored the membership referendum on unilateral withdrawal, which he insisted upon, and went ahead with the dismantling of 25 settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria. He fired ministers who followed the party platform and rewarded supportive backbenchers. Despite this, and despite corruption suspicions against him and the conviction of his son for felonies committed on his behalf, Sharon is for now emerging as the resplendent knight tilting against a tarnished movement. BG, by contrast, honored the rank and file's say even when it hurt. In 1934, he put a coexistence agreement he negotiated with Ze'ev Jabotinsky to the vote of Histadrut members. A budding friendship based on hard-won mutual respect was apparent between the legendary archrivals and it held a great promise to the nation. BG staked a great deal on it and believed that a live-and-let-live truce with the Revisionists could change Yishuv history. He was probably right. Yet Histadrut members - some hailing from the Marxist fringes - vetoed the deal. BG felt rebuffed but heeded the verdict. Sharon may wish to emulate BG's autocracy, yet it was never absolute. When BG fielded Rafi, his reputation was trashed. The widespread disgust with Mapai's hegemony was attributed to BG, not to the rocks of the party establishment he railed against. Why was Ben-Gurion - quester after truth, even to his own detriment - perceived as embodying decay, whereas Sharon gains momentum, despite his history? One answer, perhaps, was recently given by Channel 2's Amnon Abromovitch, who recommended to his media colleagues to "protect Sharon like an etrog (Succot citron), wrap him in cotton-wool, put him in cellophane, and shelter him in a box."

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