"A public man loses his usefulness when he as an individual, rather than his policy, becomes the issue." The person who said that was none other than Richard Nixon, many years before the Watergate scandal that turned his character into the essence. But Nixon, at least, left a mark on global policy, his efforts in this sphere becoming even more intense as the noose tightened around his neck.
The blow to Prime Minister Sharon's prestige this week, with the indictment of contractor David Appel, puts him in a much more questionable position from the standpoint of history. What has he achieved? He doesn't even have the excuses and escape nets that Nixon did.
What can he say? That this preoccupation with scandals is hindering his work as a dynamic regional peacemaker? For three years, if Sharon has been "busy" at all, it has been in pruning the political process, inch by inch, with his yawns and indifference. What can he say? That we shouldn't mix family matters and government affairs? He's already done the mixing himself. That a prime minister can't work with a lawyer standing over him? He's the one who took a top lawyer to be at his side from his first day in office. That all the insinuations and allegations are ruining his reputation as an honest, truthful man and hence his integrity as prime minister? From Sharon's record over the years, including quotes from Ben-Gurion and the Kahan Commission, defending his bad name is bound to be easier than defending his good one.
The paradox, however, is that focusing on Sharon's character rather than on his policy actually gives him a new lease on political life from time to time. The very fact that no one expects morality from him, gives him strength and power to endure. Not only that, but his reputation as a man who doesn't know limits, in more senses than one, is responsible for getting him where he is today.
People sang "Arik, king of Israel" in his honor not because he is a paragon of modesty and virtue. He was elected twice by a landslide not because of his persevering and successful policies, but because of his trampling, bulldozer-like personality - and, above all, because of his brilliant manipulative ability, bordering on comedy, to blur the distinction between his own character and the fate of "the Jews."
What has been said about one of the characters in "The Big Lebowski" could be applied to Sharon. "He treats women like objects and objects like women." Sharon treats personal interests like national interests, and national interests like personal interests.
Sharon's wealthy backers are portrayed as Righteous Gentiles showering "the Jews" (i.e., Sharon and his sons) with donations. The secret of his private wealth - which includes urban and agricultural real estate - has been successfully presented until now as a noble, Zionist, state secret, somehow connected to pioneering, settling the land and the unity of Jerusalem. Sharon treats Arab leaders like personal foes, in the same way that American policy is treated like a personal friendship.
All politicians have personal aspirations. Only Sharon is motivated by nationalism. All the others seek public support. Only Sharon is capable of grabbing the microphone at a Likud convention and asking, "Who is in favor of eliminating terror?" - as if his very personality were synonymous with eliminating terror, and not some ugly, raging, egocentric thing.
Obviously, even that promise he failed to keep. But that didn't stop him from bellowing, about a year ago, when these scandals first came to light, "Tell me: Are you completely out of your minds?" The response was an embarrassed silence. To his voters, it sounded as if he were warding off a dangerous plot against the security of the state or "the Jews," and not some personal criminal suspicion.
Sharon is a world champion of ambiguity, vagueness and border-blurring. Does it hurt him? Not necessarily. Certainly not with the Israeli public, which has an almost emotional need for this kind of obscurity. Moreover, Sharon's wooly distinctions don't stop at the personal: His approach to defense deliberately muddies the line between terror and armed combat, between war and political struggle. His approach to settlement deliberately blurs the difference between "legal" and "illegal."
Sharon's response to the impetuous behavior of our ambassador in Sweden attests to another of his delightful and useful skills: smudging the line between anti-Semitism and opposition to Israeli policy, in addition to pretending that Israel is despised for being Israel - not because of the policies of a specific government. In this way, Sharon creates the illusion that the whole world is against us anyway, whether we occupy or withdraw. Everyone hates us, regardless of his actions.
Sharon has plunged us into a kind of national chaos of identity that he himself symbolizes: More than being the prime minister of a rational, law-abiding country, he operates like a Diaspora leader in a self-imposed ghetto. As such, all is forgiven.
Nixon, in the democratic United States, defended himself by saying: "I am not a crook." Sharon, in the Israeli Jewish community, can say: "And even if I am - so what?"
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