In a meeting last week of the ministerial committee on the release of Palestinian prisoners, Minister without Portfolio Gideon Ezra (Likud) took an unexpected position. He supported the release of prisoners with "blood on their hands," as long as they had been serving long jail sentences and would declare their support for an accord with Israel, while before Ezra became a minister, he was known for his hard-line attitude toward Palestinian demands.
Another surprise at the meeting came from Minister Zevulun Orlev. Normally a moderate, he led such successful opposition in the committee to the release of prisoners from Islamic Jihad and Hamas that Prime Minister Sharon was forced to withdraw his proposal and bring it back to the Knesset plenum for renewed debate, probably this morning.
The positions that Ezra and Orlev expressed are good examples of the American expression "you stand where you sit." In other words. when you are a backbencher and you are out of the prime minister's line of sight, even if he is from your party, you become a political grumbler and look for ways to get even with him. And when you are a minister, and the prime minister knows enough to make you feel important, a partner in the decision-making process, you suddenly show understanding for his motives and throw in your support for his policies.
Ariel Sharon knows this axiom better than any other politician. He was ostracized for most of his career in the Israel Defense Forces and in public life. It made him an untiringly bitter and critical political foe, whose continual challenges to his superiors and peers only served to increase the alienation between him and them.
But when there were wise people around, who recognized the phenomenon and understood its roots, they were able to change his position. Thus it was in 1978, when Maj. Gen. Avraham Tamir, with the blessing of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, updated Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon as to the progress at Camp David, and encouraged Sharon to call Menachem Begin to let him know that it was all right with him to give up Yamit. Thus it was when Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan included Sharon in the inner circle of negotiators with President Jimmy Carter during the last stages of the polishing of the peace accord with Egypt, and got Sharon's blessing for formulations that had been stumbling blocks to the completion of the process.
When Sharon was elected prime minister, it was obvious that he had learned the lessons of his political life. He was surprisingly generous and extraordinarily tolerant to those around him. He proved so politically adept a manager of human relations when it came to ministers and party heads that even Labor ministers (in his first government) could not stop praising him, comparing his behavior with the arrogance of Ehud Barak. As prime minister, Sharon has proved his ability to conquer his violent and uninhibited temper. Perhaps his position at the top of the political heap has calmed him down and softened him.
But his behavior with the cabinet with regard to negotiations with the Palestinians has shown that he needs to do his homework over again. He should act toward his ministerial opponents the way Weizman and Dayan acted toward him. He should ask Benjamin Netanyahu and Limor Livnat to join him when he meets with Silvan Shalom and Shaul Mofaz. He should invite Effi Eitam to his meetings with Abu Mazen and not publicly humiliate Zevulun Orlev when he legitimately disagrees with the finance minister. Foreign policy is, after all, a reflection of domestic policy.
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