The prime minister's UN-common prime time

Ariel Sharon's warm welcome at the General Assembly won't win him any popularity contests in his party back home.

Before Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak was the last Israeli prime minister to address the United Nations General Assembly. It was September 6, 2000, just a few weeks before the Palestinians unleashed their war of terror, and Barak strutted through the halls of the world body like a conquering hero. Many of the world's leaders who had gathered for the UN Millennium Summit wanted to shake the hand of the Israeli leader who at the just concluded but failed Camp David summit with Yasser Arafat made concessions that many thought no Israeli leader would ever make. Never mind that Arafat spurned the concessions; the praise and adulation in the halls of the UN were very welcome for Barak, who was facing dismal polls in Israel that showed his popularity sinking fast. The scent of elections was already in the air. Barak's appearance at the UN was almost Abba Eban-esque harshly criticized at home, but loved abroad. To make matters worse, Barak had to figure out a way to keep his erstwhile peace partner Arafat from taking a revolutionary step and unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state. Arafat had set a September 13 deadline for his unilateral declaration of statehood, and Barak spent much of his time meeting world leaders at the UN trying to get them to convince Arafat that unilateral steps were not the answer. How ironic, then, that five years to the day after Arafat was to declare unilateral statehood (he never did), Sharon arrived in New York to reap plaudits for a unilateral step of his own disengagement from Gaza. Israel at the time didn't want Arafat to unilaterally declare a state, and threatened to unilaterally determine its border if the Palestinians did so. Today there are those close to Sharon who wish that Arafat's heir, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, would do just that. Because, if there were a state, there would be someone to hold responsible; if there were a state, there would be an expectation from the world that that state need adhere to certain norms of behavior; if there were a state, there would be something for the other side to lose. Arafat threatened a state; Sharon should be so lucky. What a difference five years makes. But with all those differences, there was something in the way Sharon lumbered through the UN halls, glad-handing world leaders, that was reminiscent of Barak. Like Barak, he faces domestic political turmoil. Like Barak, he took a huge risk that carries no guarantee of success. Unlike Barak, however, Sharon's popularity among the electorate remains strong. The polls consistently show him winning the next elections, if he can just get past the Likud Central Committee. True, Sharon got praise at the UN from the president of Haiti, but he is still also getting a degree of praise from the residents of Haifa a major difference between his situation today and that of Barak five years ago. THIS WEEK, Sharon's chief rival, Likud MK Binyamin Netanyahu, sarcastically noted playing on the Hebrew phrase for trading land for peace (shtahim tmurat shalom) that Sharon traded land for red carpets (shtahim tmurat shtihim). To which a relaxed and combative Sharon, shortly after meeting US President George W. Bush on Wednesday, and just before meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reports that Netanyahu as prime minister gave up 13 percent of the territories at Wye River, and didn't even get the red carpets. Although Sharon didn't let on, there must have been something very satisfying for him for so long the world's detested symbol of the "intransigent, hard-line Israeli" being accepted with wide-open arms by so many countries who count in the UN. It must have been satisfying to be accepted by so many countries for whom he was anathema just five years ago when, for instance, he went onto the Temple Mount soon after Barak's return from the UN to demonstrate against Barak's willingness to negotiate over Jerusalem. Barak, in his speech to the General Assembly in 2000, reiterated the centrality and importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and then in a first for an Israeli leader acknowledged that it is also "cherished by our Palestinian neighbors." His conciliatory words were not exactly mirrored in remarks to the General Assembly by Arafat, who accused the Jews of trying to "Judaize" Jerusalem and while referring to it as the "cradle of Christ" and the point from where Mohammed ascended to heaven made no acknowledgement of any Jewish connection to the city. Sharon was to have none of that. In his speech Thursday, he was expected to say that he arrived at the UN from Jerusalem, the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people. Period. Full stop. He would acknowledge Palestinian yearnings for an independent state, but yield no public ground on Jerusalem. Even without hinting at concessions in Jerusalem, Sharon's was still a much sought-after hand to shake at a reception for the world leaders. And he liked the feeling. Never one to place a whole lot of stock in what the world outside of Washington thought, believing it biased against Israel in the first place, on the first day of his "UN victory tour," Sharon said that perhaps more attention needed to be focused on all that. "A lot of people came up to me in the corridors, or when I sat in the plenum, even during the session on democratization," Sharon said, somewhat sheepishly. "This shows me that we have to increase our (outreach) efforts. It is necessary to pay more attention to this." Sharon, once so world-skeptical, said it was possible now to further Israel's relations with the rest of the world. Sharon would like to do this, but is unable to invest the time because he has to concentrate on "nonsense," like the Likud Central Committee meeting at the end of the month. In a meeting with reporters in a suite in the New York's Palace Hotel where he was staying, he bemoaned having to invest so much time and energy on the Likud Central Committee members, talking to the head of the Likud branches, getting them out to vote. It's so much more rewarding, obviously, hearing words of praise from the president of Russia and prime minister of Britain. But Britain's Tony Blair and Russia's Putin don't vote in the Likud Central Committee (unfortunately, as far as Sharon is concerned.) Those pesty Likud branch leaders do, however. One thing Sharon would be wise to learn from Barak's experience at the UN, is that without domestic support, the praise from the world's high and mighty is like so much cotton candy fluffy and sweet-tasting, but gone in a moment.