Never throughout the last several decades of Israel's highly bipolar politics has a prime minister so precisely defined the consensus of the Israeli voting public as has Ariel Sharon. In spite of a record of inconsistent and variant political moves, ranging from reconquering all West Bank cities to unilaterally pulling out of Gaza and the northern West Bank, Sharon has succeeded in expressing the will of the majority of Israelis from the pragmatic Left to the pragmatic Right.
Sharon's ability to express and embody the majority's will has little to do with his actual policies and everything to do with how Israelis view him as a leader and a person. Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party incumbent in the last election, presented a plan for a unilateral Gaza pullout as official party policy - and was soundly defeated by Sharon, who ran with no clear election policy aside from "the nation wants Sharon." Only when Sharon reinvented the Gaza pullout as "disengagement" did such a move become a consensus opinion.
Why is Sharon so loved and accepted by the public? Part of the explanation lies in his perceived character traits:
â€¢ He is viewed as a true pioneer farmer, representative of the generation that built and defended the state out of sheer guts.
â€¢ Once a ruthless military leader, he is now perceived as a cuddly, white-haired grandfather.
â€¢ He has disengaged himself from any ideology and has become a pragmatist.
â€¢ He does not trust "the Arabs."
â€¢ "The Arabs" fear him.
â€¢ Only Sharon, father of the settlement project in the territories, can be trusted with the painful and messy task of dismantling settlements.
IN HIS his two terms in office Sharon has defined the following broadly coherent foreign policy with respect to the Palestinians and international pre ssures:
We, the Israelis, are ready to negotiate and make painful concessions to the Palestinians because they too deserve a state, and because we have to end the occupation to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish-democratic state. However, the Palestinia ns must dismantle the terror organizations, as part of the first stage of the road map, before negotiations can begin. Since the Palestinians will not eliminate terror we have an obligation to defend our citizens from terrorism through measures such as th e security barrier, mass arrests, road blocks and targeted assassinations. In addition, if the Palestinians are not ready to negotiate we have an obligation to unilaterally determine our borders by "disengaging" from isolated settlements, while at the sam e time strengthening settlement blocs and building the security fence according to our desired route.
Aspects of this something-for-everyone policy are acceptable to a wide range of Israeli voters, from professors residing in elite north Tel Aviv to immi grant factory workers in development towns. Sharon will most likely be able to implement some variation of this policy in his final term in office, as he is sure to be victorious in the upcoming 2006 elections. This policy could result in any of the follo wing scenarios, all of which would be acceptable to the majority of Israelis as long as it is Sharon who is implementing the policy:
â€¢ Sharon could negotiate a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians, based on the road map. While this would be the most difficult implementation of Sharon's broad policy, a final status peace agreement is desired by broad elements of Israeli society. The very fact that Sharon, a man of the Right, would agree to far-reaching concessions would help convince the pub lic to swallow such a potentially explosive move.
â€¢ Using the same justifications as in the Gaza disengagement Sharon could unilaterally dismantle isolated settlements to further Israel's interest in defining its borders according to demographic concerns. This type of move has proven widely popular among the Israeli public (if implemented by Sharon), and has proven to be feasible.
â€¢ GIVEN THE fact that the Palestinians are not likely to take any serious action against the terror organizations, Sharon could easily choose to halt significant political and diplomatic moves, thereby maintaining the status quo, and ride into the sunset and into the history books on the back of his Gaza disengagement plan.
â€¢ Alternatively, given the distinct possibility of a third Palestinian uprising in the form of suicide terror and Kassam rockets in Israeli cities, Sharon could launch a massive anti-terror campaign and reoccupy several West Bank cities. Just as the Defensive Shield operation of 2002 was popular with the public, a similar operation, if required, would have broad support. Under the conditions of terror and hopelessness it would be swallowed by the consensus, if led by Sharon.
Given Ariel Sharon's unprecedented power to create a lasting Middle East reality, rather than pursuing tentative unilateral moves or upholding the status quo he must now answer the public call and take bold moves toward a final peace agreement. Only Sharon can transform the drastic concessions that would be required in a final status agreement into diplomatic moves supported by the Israeli consensus.
The Israeli public has awakened from the dream of Greater Israel, as has Ariel Sharon. The public wants peace and is prepared to make painful concessions in exchange for it. However, i t is only prepared to make concessions that are within its consensus, as defined by Ariel Sharon and his new centrist party.
The writer is a journalist based in Rishon Lezion.nË‡