Leaders With Balls

Sharon is trying to find the right person for the right slot, and to put together a centrist party with clear national goals that will fit his electorate.

Around here, you can't go on vacation. Disappear for five weeks and you come back to a different country. In the time I've been away, Israel has gone through more than an "upheaval," as TV news anchor Haim Yavin put it in 1977. The whole order of government has changed.

The country is overflowing with spin. It's become a marketplace, a haggler's paradise. Politicians change their minds from one minute to the next, shamelessly hopping from one party to another. People are scrambling to get off the boat faster than they are to get on it.

What is happening in the Likud reminds me of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, where one by one the musicians leave the stage and blow out their candles. After Tzachi Hanegbi, I wouldn't be surprised if Silvan Shalom joined Kadima, too. Who knows? Maybe Benjamin Netanyahu will also switch over in the end, leaving Moshe Feiglin and Uzi Landau to turn off the lights.

The mad dash of the Labor bigwigs to hook up with Ariel Sharon and Shaul Mofaz's zigzagging all over the place were disconcerting, but these things will be forgotten over time. They're all double-crossers.

And yet something good could be born from the current mess. Henry Kissinger called uncertainty of this kind "constructive ambiguity." The five giddy weeks since Amir Peretz was elected Labor chairman have transformed the reshuffling of Israel's political deck into a constructive mess.

It is hard to believe that within all of five weeks, the political system has undergone such a transformation. Even more unbelievable is that Peretz, with his surprising victory and decision to run for prime minister, was the catalyst. He has injected new life into his fossilized party and opened the door to a new generation of young politicians craving for involvement.

Peretz has made a few mistakes - fewer than Yitzhak Rabin in his first term - but he has become serious and determined more quickly. With his economic pronouncements he may have pushed some voters into the limp arms of Shinui, and with his boast that he can reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians within a year, he has shown off his silly side. But looking at the big picture, he has invigorated his party and been the impetus for Sharon's dramatic decision to establish Kadima - a move that has whittled the Likud down and left it a dwarfish, far-right party on the political fringes.

For Sharon, splitting away from the right-wing extremists in favor of dividing the country and ending terror has become a personal crusade. In practice, he has adopted David Ben-Gurion's dictum that the "wholeness of the Jewish people takes preference over the wholeness of the land." The strong support that the embryonic Kadima has chalked up in opinion polls shows how much the public yearns for political sanity and an agreement with the Palestinians. It shows how many people believe that of all the leaders out there, Sharon is the only one who can do what needs to be done and stands a good chance of being reelected. The secondhand mantra about Sharon dividing Jerusalem just slides off him.

A Brussels-based newspaper, the European Voice, has declared Sharon one of the EV50 - one of the top Europeans of the year - along with Blair and Schroeder. Under his picture it says "A Leader with Balls." "You need courage to stand up to your enemies, but you need even more courage to stand up to your friends," goes the text. "Scenes of withdrawal from Gaza were not what we expected from Sharon."

Sharon does not pick people for his new party from just any old where. He is not surrounded entirely by Likud loyalists and aristocrats. He is trying to find the right person for the right slot, and to put together a centrist party with clear national goals that will fit his electorate.

Peretz has chosen a similar path, embracing newness and diversity. Those who think they can mess around with him, like Ehud Barak, will soon find out that he's not the buffoon from the TV comedy routines. He may be the friendly type and trip over his tongue sometimes, but he is a tough cookie who is not about to end up like Amram Mitzna.

The upheaval now looming on the horizon is one in which the country will revert to a stable political system of two large parties that will only need one small party - Shas, for instance - to establish an orderly, sane administration and leave the extremists, badly shrunken, out in the cold.

Peretz has not been applauded by any European newspaper yet, but don't let the mustache, the big hair and the Mr. Nice Guy demeanor fool you. He's in the leader-with-balls category, too. Together, he and Sharon can turn the tables and restore the country's political equilibrium, winning the majority needed to address Israel's social problems and also demarcate permanent borders.