US Jews confident in Israeli democracy

'It would be very difficult to imagine life without [Sharon].'

American Jewish leaders mingled anxiety with belief in Israel's ability to endure hardship Thursday while they closely monitored news on hospitalized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "It's a time of prayer and uncertainty, but also of enduring confidence in Israel's democracy and stable nature," said David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "Prime Minister Sharon has had a highly personalized leadership in the last five years so it would be very difficult to imagine life without him," Harris said, yet Israel has weathered the loss of other strong leaders in the past. Echoing those words, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said Sharon "is a very great man, but no democracy is truly dependent on any single individual." Still, he added, "his likely withdrawal from politics creates tremendous uncertainty." To Yoffie, Sharon is "far and away the dominant politician on the Israeli scene, attuned to the people like nobody else," the most commanding figure since founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Malcolm Hoenlein, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which includes 52 groups, said he also was confident in Israel's internal stability. His concern is that a nation such as Iran might try to escalate tension with Israel at a time when the Palestinian territories are unstable. Though most leaders sidestepped partisan comment until Sharon's situation clarifies, John Ruskay, chief executive of the UJA-Federation of New York said he thinks acting prime minister Ehud Olmert "has the political savvy and leadership ability to take over." Jewish officials credited Sharon with bold action to foster Mideast peace, especially withdrawal from Gaza settlements. Harris said "he took Israel politically where no other Israeli politician could have, to the realization that withdrawal from territory was necessary, not only for Palestinian aspirations but for Israel's natural security," just as only France's Charles De Gaulle could have withdrawn from Algeria and only America's Richard Nixon could have reached out to China. Yoffie called this "a change of historical proportions" that "enhanced Israel's standing in the world." Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine made the same observation about Sharon, even though he said he and other liberals "saw him as an obstacle to peace." In the end, he said, Sharon has acknowledged "that a smaller Israel with defensible borders is preferable to a large Israel that requires domination of millions of Palestinians." In Lerner's view, precisely because of Sharon's past as "a ruthless militarist who cared little for the humanity of the Palestinian people," he could consolidate Israeli support for a Palestinian state, making his absence "a grave setback" for Mideast peace.