A year ago, Israel stood on the threshold of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. The internal rift between the "oranges" and the "blues" appeared then to be the main threat to the welfare and security of the state. The borders were quiet, and there was a cease-fire in the territories. A year later, and after dramatic leadership changes, the strategic picture is just the opposite. The Jews are united, but the borders are turbulent, and the Israel Defense Forces is fighting on three fronts. Internal criticism is now being directed at the performance of the army, the same army that earned praise for the evacuation of the settlers from their homes last summer.
The dramatic change in the national agenda raises two questions: Are the successors of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, those who swore to continue on his path, keeping their promise? And what remains of the "Sharon legacy" a year after the formative event of his premiership?
Sharon's leadership of the country was based on two guidelines, which he learned from his failure in the first Lebanon War. One was that including Labor in the government is an essential condition for aggressive moves; and the second was that it is important to coordinate every move with the U.S. administration. This was how to ensure internal consensus and international support.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert internalized these directives like a diligent student. The coalition with Labor and the appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister provided him with internal unity in the present war. The streets are empty of demonstrations, and the protest on the left is still marginal. Olmert knows that he has Peretz to thank, and praises him in every conversation and speech, in spite of the friction between them. The same is true vis-a-vis the United States: Olmert makes sure to look as though he is doing Washington's bidding, even when this involves a show of concessions, as in the suspension of bombings this week.
Olmert's approach to the use of force is also reminiscent of his predecessor's. Like Sharon, he has no pity for the victims on the other side. He "regretted" and did not "apologize for" the killing of civilians in Qana, and his government sees such incidents as a propaganda mishap rather than an ethical problem. Although Olmert isn't caught saying insulting things about "the Arabs," as Sharon was, they have a similar approach in wartime.
It is in the political arena that the Sharon legacy has been neglected. In spite of Olmert's statements yesterday, the unilateral withdrawal, which he described as "Zionism's lifeline," was removed from the agenda with the outbreak of violence in Gaza and Lebanon. One can argue as to whether Sharon really planned to withdraw from the West Bank - he made contradictory statements - but it is clear that this is how Olmert understood his predecessor's legacy when he announced the "convergence plan." Now, he will need a new political banner.
Sharon's defense policy has also been abandoned; Sharon chose to concentrate on the Palestinians and to make do with a political holding action in the north. Now, he is being criticized for refraining from dealing with Hezbollah's rockets - by means of a preventative war, or by preparing the IDF for the task. He is being accused of being a hostage to the trauma of the 1982 Lebanon War and avoiding a confrontation with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. But these critics were silent during his term in office, and his successors are trying, like he did, to make the international community take responsibility for the Lebanese-Iranian issue. Sharon may also have been more familiar than Olmert with the true capabilities of the IDF.
And there are differences in style, too: Olmert's lengthy addresses sometimes arouse a longing for the brief texts, five minutes at most, of his predecessor. Olmert is decisive, whereas Sharon engaged in lengthy consultations and deliberations before deciding. There is no clear-cut advantage to either approach. Sharon dallied too long before building the separation fence, and Olmert was too hasty to go to war in the north. Sharon loved to defy the consensus, and his political power enabled him to bring about fundamental changes. But it is doubtful whether his successors will dare in the future to appoint a pilot as chief of staff rather than someone from the ground forces.
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