Israelis Like Their Leaders Fat, but Will Americans Go for Chubby President Chris Christie?

The controversy in America over the corpulence of the Republican candidate-in-waiting may seem peculiar to Israelis, who have always been fond of plump politicians. Ariel Sharon is a case in point, for both sides of the argument.

NEW YORK - An Israeli observer might be forgiven for being taken aback by the ferocity of the great “weight debate” that has erupted here in recent days over the political significance of Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s plentiful poundage.

The lead article in the prestigious Sunday Review section of the New York Times was devoted to a rebuttal of the growing criticism of the corpulent Christie, the Republican Party’s candidate-in-waiting who is now tied with President Barack Obama in the polls, and whose veiled political plans keeps everyone guessing. The Sunday talk shows all devoted significant segments to the question of just how damaging Christie’s excess kilos might be to his presidential prospects, and the comedians and pundits are having a field day with biting barbs about the governor’s bulk.

Christie 9/11 memorial Reuters

In Israel, on the other hand, portliness has never been viewed as an impediment to popularity. Some might even go so far as to claim that as far as Israeli politicians are concerned the rule of thumb – not to put too fine a point on it - is: the fatter the better.

After all, the plumpness of Labor Party stalwart Avraham “Baiga” Shochat played a pivotal role in turning him into a walking political oxymoron as an eternally popular Finance Minister in the 1990s. And there is no doubt that the massive midriff of Labor’s Benjamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer helped him maintain the public’s love and affection, despite his many years of questionable back-room wheeling-and-dealing. And the celebrated stoutness of the now-comatose former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not prevent him from being elected twice as prime minister - and some believe it may even have helped.

“Sharon’s heaviness conveyed to the public a sense of stability at a time of great inner turmoil,” says his former media adviser, Arnon Perlman, speaking of the former IDF general’s electoral victories in the terror and intifada-plagued years of 2001 and 2003. “He walked slowly and spoke little but his measured manner provided the public with a welcome antithesis to his two frenetic predecessors, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu,” he said.

And though the cunning Sharon was himself an exception to the rule, most Israelis probably subscribe to the Shakespearean Julius Caesar’s prescient counsel against the “dangerous thoughts” of “lean and hungry” men such as the devious Cassius - as well as to his yearning for the comfort and safety of “men about me that are fat; sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights.”

Indeed, contrary to the claims of columnists Michael Kinsley of Bloomberg and Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, who led the onslaught against the governor’s chunkiness, American voters might actually see eye-to-eye with Israelis on this matter: A 2009 University of Missouri study, now being quoted extensively, showed that voters prefer rotund politicians - at least if they are male – over their skinnier competitors.

Nonetheless, while Perlman dismisses the current discussion of Christie’s weight as “superficially and typically American,” the fact remains that it is Sharon who has been in a coma for the past five years as a result of a stroke that, according to most experts – though not Sharon’s former confidantes – was induced or at least aggravated by his unhealthy lifestyle and his 100 lbs or more of excess baggage.

And though Perlman ascribes Sharon’s appetite to a benign joie de vivre and curiosity for life, others could reasonably make the point that his insatiable consumption of ultimately toxic foods should indeed have been taken as an early warning signal for a man who came to be known, after all, as “the bulldozer” who stopped at nothing.

Sharon, they could claim, ultimately governed just like he ate: from the excesses of the first Lebanon War through the reckless establishment of settlements all over the West Bank to their ruthless removal in the disputed disengagement from Gaza.

Christie, at least, has vowed to try and mend his culinary ways and to try to stick to healthier foods. Sharon, on the other hand, remained an unrepentant gorger of harmful skewers of meat up to the very day before his stroke, providing an apt political epitaph for his many detractors: the proof, they could say, was in the pita.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev