Ariel Sharon was a man who knew how to seize an opportunity. A brilliant general
and a skilled politician, Sharon had no qualms about reversing previously-held
positions when opportunity knocked. He appeared to abandon strategic views
without looking back in regret, once persuaded that his former positions no
longer served either his own political survival and success or the greater good
The examples are numerous, and are particularly salient in
policy decisions that pertained to the political process with the
From the outset, few were more vociferously opposed to the
Oslo process and Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza Strip than
Sharon. He lambasted on ideological, strategic and tactical grounds his four
predecessors as prime minister – Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak – for
negotiating with the PLO and agreeing to withdrawals.
Yet, when he became
prime minister he defied his party by railroading through the disengagement plan
and unilaterally withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip, removing all the
settlements by the bye, and went on to negotiate with Palestinian Authority
Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
For close to two years Sharon resisted public and
political pressure to build a separation barrier in the West Bank. He objected
to the idea on strategic grounds, arguing that all territory on the far side of
the barrier would ultimately be lost to the Palestinians. But against the
backdrop of public consternation over the mounting campaign of Palestinian
suicide bombing attacks in the second intifada and increasingly close ties with
the Bush administration that peaked with president Bush’s 2004 letter, Sharon
reversed his decision.
The barrier, once reviled, was championed by
Sharon as a tactical means for stopping the scourge of suicide bombings and was
designed to serve as a strategic tool to ensure that all the territory on the
Israeli side of it would ultimately become part of Israel.
as Netanyahu’s foreign minister in 1998, Sharon responded to the Wye memorandum
by calling on the public to establish settlement outposts.
Israelis to “seize additional hilltops and to expand the territory. Every area
we seize will be in our hands. Any area we don’t seize will be in
But when he endorsed the US-sponsored “road map,” this time as
prime minister, Sharon formally undertook to remove those very same settlement
outposts, whose establishment he had championed just a few years
Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s former bureau chief, wrote in a Yediot
op-ed on Sunday that the Sharon government had removed roughly 80 such
outposts in keeping with that commitment.
By making the above-cited
strategic and ideological shifts, disengagement particularly so, Sharon severely
alienated his original base – the hard-core Likud ideologues and much of the
settler community and leadership – producing a rift with his former political
partners and allies. He seized the opportunity to abandon his former alliance
with the far-right wing and formed Kadima to lead a stable centrist
Those strategic reversals, though costing him his base, won
Sharon broad domestic and international support, once unthinkable for the man
who had been reviled by many in Israel and around the world as the “butcher of
Beirut” for his role in the Lebanon War and specifically in the 1982 Sabra and
Prime Minister Netanyahu, though not a celebrated
general like Sharon, has proven to be a skillful politician and
For close to three years he has adeptly maneuvered through the
political arena to maintain the stability of his right-wing coalition and to
prevent any serious opposition from forming that might threaten him either in
the Knesset or from within his own Likud party.
Netanyahu has also shown
Sharon-like ideological pliability, both in word and in deed, once he became
convinced that this was politically expedient. In a concession to international
pressure, Netanyahu formally backed away from his ideological opposition to the
establishment of a Palestinian state in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. In response to
domestic pressure and political expedience, he agreed in 2011 to the lopsided
prisoner exchange agreement that freed Gilad Schalit, contrary to his erstwhile
ideological opposition to precisely such deals.
Both of those decisions
angered and alienated ideologues within his current camp of supporters, but were
not severe enough to produce political rifts and a realignment of powers the way
disengagement did for Sharon.
But now, once again, Netanyahu is on the
threshold of another moment in which he will have to decide, Sharon-like, whether
to abandon past positions and political partners and make an ideological shift.
This time the decision before him could, like disengagement for Sharon, impel
some of his coalition partners to bolt and prompt members of his party to
Netanyahu has undertaken to present a proposal on Israel’s borders
in a final status arrangement with the Palestinians by the end of March. On the
assumption that he keeps his word, the practical implication of such a step is
an Israeli concession in principle (and in practice, in terms of future
construction in settlements) all areas that lie on the other side of those
This course of action will be utterly unacceptable to
some of his coalition partners and to many of his fellow Likud members,
particularly to those either beholden to or in agreement with Moshe Feiglin. The
rebellion that is likely to ensue will shake the foundations of his coalition
and might lead to early elections.
But Netanyahu could hardly hope for a
better way to enter into an election.
Running against a withered and
lackluster Kadima, an inexperienced Yair Lapid and a Labor Party under the
left-leaning Shelly Yacimovich, Netanyahu could sweep the election and form a
centrist, Sharon-like coalition. Riding on the coattails of international
applause and running on a pragmatic centrist ticket, Netanyahu can expect to win
the election and to form a centrist coalition that will remain stable, provided,
of course, he follows through on his ideological change of heart.