Inside Out: Netanyahu's 'Sharon moment'

Prime Minister Netanyahu, though not a celebrated general like Sharon, has proven to be a skillful politician and tactician.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon poster 390 (R) (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon poster 390 (R)
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
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 of Israel.
The examples are numerous, and are particularly salient in policy decisions that pertained to the political process with the Palestinians.
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.
While serving as Netanyahu’s foreign minister in 1998, Sharon responded to the Wye memorandum by calling on the public to establish settlement outposts.
He encouraged 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 theirs.”
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 before.
Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s former bureau chief, wrote in a Yediot Aharonot 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 coalition.
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 Shatilla massacres.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, though not a celebrated general like Sharon, has proven to be a skillful politician and tactician.
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 rebel.
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 proposed borders.
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.