Politics: Arik says...

Sharon's words were heared several times this week - from people purporting to speak on his behalf.

acting PM olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
acting PM olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Members of the foreign press corps who arrived in Israel from around the world a week ago in hopes of reporting either on the dramatic recovery or on the tragic funeral of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left the country sorely disappointed. Sharon recovered from his stroke enough to move his right hand and leg and his left arm, but the prime minister did not open his eyes or move his lips. And yet, Sharon's words were heard loud and clear several times this week - from people purporting to speak on his behalf. THE WEEK started with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opening Sunday's cabinet meeting with a call to the ministers to do what he said Sharon would want them to do. "If I could speak with him this morning and ask, 'Arik, what would you tell us? What would you want us to do?' he would say: 'I appreciate the fact that you are all concerned about my health. Thank you, but get to work,'" Olmert said. Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, too, "quoted" his boss. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post published Sunday, Gissin said that if Sharon were able to speak, he would have criticized the press for writing about his funeral arrangements while he was still alive. "He would say with a cynical smile that in this country there is only extra-large and extra-small, but let's have some moderation," Gissin said. On Monday night, former prime minister Shimon Peres used a promise made to him by Sharon before his stroke to lock up the second slot on Kadima's Knesset list. The ventriloquism of Sharon reached a new level on Wednesday when his advisers attacked Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu in his name and proposed placing Sharon first on Kadima's Knesset list should he recover in time to sign a document declaring his candidacy by the February 7 central elections committee deadline. Kadima campaign manager Reuven Adler said that according to his idea, Olmert would be Kadima's candidate for prime minister, but Sharon would top the list. He had no way of asking Sharon for his opinion, but he volunteered the ailing prime minister to return to the bump and grind of the Knesset in just three months. "I definitely think that if it is possible and the prime minister were able to function again even partially, it must be done," Adler said. The most hyped incident of a politician allegedly speaking in Sharon's name came on Wednesday when a screaming headline splashed across the top of Ma'ariv reported that Netanyahu claimed to be Sharon's heir in an interview with The New York Times. It was Sharon's advisers who initially called attention to the interview on Tuesday and managed to make it the top issue on Wednesday's talk radio shows. They issued anonymous statements declaring that Sharon would have been outraged had he seen his political nemesis declaring himself his rightful inheritor. Kadima MK Roni Bar-On rushed to radio and television stations to accuse Netanyahu of using Sharon's illness for his own political gain. He said it was hutzpa for the man that Sharon so detested to claim to be his successor. BUT NETANYAHU made no such statement in the New York Times interview. He merely extolled Sharon's virtues, as he did in television interviews with CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Channel 2's Yair Lapid. It was the interviewer, New York Times Israel correspondent Steven Erlanger, who observed that Netanyahu - instead of criticizing the prime minister - "is now positioning himself as Mr. Sharon's former partner and heir apparent." "He portrayed himself as Mr. Sharon's most direct inheritor, especially in the single issue that Israelis care most about: security and dealings with the Palestinians," Erlanger wrote. After a full day of seeing what he wrote put in Netanyahu's mouth, Erlanger told The Jerusalem Post that "the phrase was mine, not his," and said his words were misattributed in what he called "a willful misinterpretation for political ends." Netanyahu's associates expressed frustration that Olmert could get away with speaking in the prime minister's name, while Netanyahu got drubbed in the media for saying something that he didn't. "He wasn't talking in Sharon's name, just talking positively about him and highlighting their experiences together," a source close to Netanyahu said. "He was just trying to send as unifying a message as possible in the hostile Israeli press environment." The Sharon advisers who initiated the hype over the Netanyahu interview later said that even if Netanyahu never claimed to be Sharon's heir, "it was still fun" to see how the story developed. "Everything we said in Sharon's name criticizing Bibi was what he said on the record in the past," a Sharon adviser said. "Sharon attacked Bibi better than anyone else, so having him say it is the most authentic way to do it." Sharon's strategists said they had not decided yet whether clips of the prime minister would be used in Kadima's election commercials. But they said that Peres made a mistake when he made a point of not using images of Yitzhak Rabin in his 1996 prime ministerial campaign. Looking back on a week where several people tried to speak in Sharon's name, a top Sharon adviser said that he and his colleagues would know where to draw the line between using Sharon as a guiding light and manipulating his words for political reasons. "It is wrong to take advantage of Sharon on issues where the situation has changed," the adviser said. "But there are trivial things that everyone knows he would say. Sharon can be used to provide his legacy and inspiration, but we should not try to interpret what he would have said on whatever the issue of the day is."