Essay: A bad decision

I wish Arik Sharon hadn't left the Likud. But I'll vote for him.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
I wish Arik Sharon hadn't left the Likud. But I'll vote for him. Sharon may have been a good prime minister, but he was a bad leader of his party. A better one would have avoided such a predicament. What has happened in Israel this week is unheard-of in the annals of democratic politics. In what other country has a head of state ever bolted an established political party that would have re-nominated him, and at whose helm he was sure to be returned to office with a large majority, in favor of a new one with which he might lose? True enough, had Sharon stayed in the Likud, he would have faced another term as prime minister with a rebellious parliamentary faction that he would have had difficulty controlling. But it's a prime minister's job to control his own party, and Sharon had all the tools of politics and patronage to do it with. Current surveys show that, running in the next election without him, the Likud will lose over half of its strength. In what other country did a political party ever volunteer to be decimated at the polls? It shouldn't have happened. And had Arik Sharon treated the members of his own party as he should have, it wouldn't have. Had he bothered, over the past three years, to explain to them, argue with them, persuade them, appeal to them, flatter them, reward them - in short, to make them feel respected and treated as partners - rather than simply hand down his diktats, they wouldn't have encouraged him to leave the driver's seat of their bus and collectively jump off the bridge that it was crossing. Sharon lost much of the Likud, not because of the disengagement from Gaza, but because he thought Likudniks were too dumb to understand why disengagement was a good idea. As any psychologist can tell you, there's a lot of humiliation and anger behind most suicides. WELL, THAT'S all spilled milk now - but then again, it isn't. Compared to the Likud, the new party Sharon is founding might be likened to an unbroken horse alongside a stubborn but workaday mule. It will be largely composed of celebrities and prima donnas, many of whom will have never borne the yoke of parliamentary discipline in their lives and more of whom will want to be minister of this-or-that than Sharon's cabinet will have room for. They will all have ideas of their own for everything from ending the Palestinian conflict to improving the economy. If Sharon couldn't get a handle on the Likud, how will he get a handle on them? And even if he does, he will have to form a coalition with Labor in order to do what he wants to do, which is to push ahead with unilateral disengagement in Judea and Samaria. How is he going to accomplish that when Amir Peretz has consistently opposed unilateralism and supported a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority - a prospect for which Sharon has nothing but disdain? Moreover, even if Peretz goes along with disengagement, this will leave the entire right side of the political spectrum, including the whole post-Sharon Likud, against it. Sharon will then be in the position, not of Menachem Begin when he yielded Sinai with a broad national consensus behind him, but of Yitzhak Rabin when he signed the Oslo agreement with Israel badly split in two. How a West Bank disengagement many times larger and more difficult than Gaza's can be carried out under such circumstances is far from clear. And of course, all this is assuming that Sharon wins the elections - which he may not. His margin over Peretz, with the Likud nipping at his other flank, does not appear to be very comfortable at the moment. If Peretz beats him, what will he do? Serve as minister of defense to Peretz's prime minister? That's hardly likely. No, Sharon will then go back to his farm, his new party will come apart at the seams even faster than it was put together, and Israel will be in the worst political chaos it has known since the day it was founded. It's easier to destabilize a political system than to re-stabilize it. ALL OF which is why I wish Sharon had stayed in the Likud. After all, he already had two-thirds of the party's parliamentary bloc on his side. Even if he wasn't able to dictate the composition of the party's next Knesset list, he could certainly have influenced it in his favor had he been willing to get down on the floor and wrestle for each place on it. And suppose, in the worst case, that he were to come out of the elections with still only two-thirds of the Likud's Knesset faction willing to back further disengagement - he would then, too, have had as much support for it as he had in the case of Gaza. A bad decision, that's what it looks like. Nevertheless, I'll vote for him. Partly, it's a question of elimination. Who else is there? Amir Peretz? So that he can raise our taxes that have just begun to come down and waste several more bloody years trying to achieve a negotiated settlement with a Palestinian Authority that cannot offer Israel acceptable terms and would be too weak to stick to them if it could? Binyamin Netanyahu? That one-man wrecking crew who more than anyone is responsible for Sharon's leaving the Likud? (Just imagine if Netanyahu had had the sense to back Sharon on disengagement, help him to win the Likud referendum on it, and work to keep the Likud rebels in line: He would be sitting pretty now, a finance minister who had presided over an impressive economic recovery, and Sharon's loyal and undisputed heir. Who can vote for a man with such poor political judgment?) But partly, too, it's because in a world in which the Palestinians can't be negotiated with on the one hand, and are out-breeding us on the other, unilateral disengagement to borders determined by Israel remains our best strategy. And Sharon is still the only man who can conceivably carry it out, even if he should never have gotten off the bus.