Mission Impossible

Past experience and the fickleness of the public threaten to sink Sharon as they did his predecessors. Will Sharon break the historical thread? Or will his last mission turn out to be mission impossible?

Ariel Sharon was not the first to evacuate settlements from the territories. Menachem Begin did it before him, setting the precedent, with the withdrawal from Sinai, that settlements are not an "obstacle to peace." Once again, it has been proved that statesmanship trumps settlement. And when the two clash, the settlers pay the price and return home.

Begin's breakthrough did not lessen the burden of the task Sharon took on, or of the obstinacy he evinced in carrying it out in the face of political potholes. Still, the next task is far more complicated. The prime minister wants to be elected for another and a last term, at the end of which he will retire happily to his ranch.

It sounds simple, but no one has managed it so far. None of Sharon's 10 predecessors left office with a satisfied smile. They all wanted to stay; however, with the exception of Levi Eshkol, who died of an illness, and Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated, all the rest were kicked out, humiliated and heavy-hearted.

The sorry list begins with David Ben-Gurion, whose party institutions had had enough of him. Ben-Gurion got rid of Moshe Sharett. Golda Meir was ousted by a protest movement after the Yom Kippur War. Rabin had to retire from his first tenure because of the dollar-account. Begin secluded himself at home. Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak all lost the election.

Most had difficulty coming to terms with their defeat, and spent their remaining years trying to get back the power they lost. That was the case with Ben-Gurion in his useless struggle against Eshkol, and with his latter-day heirs.

For those that have not been there, it is hard to comprehend the addiction, the unflagging urge. What does Ehud Barak lack? He was the commander of the most elite unit in the Israel Defense Forces and its commander in chief; he was Israel's prime minister and the architect of its borders at Camp David; his office is full of his photos with the global great and powerful; since his retirement he has managed to make money, return to the love of his youth and have his mole removed. Why does he need to wallow in party struggles, nervously eye the latest polls and quarrel with Peres? In fact, why does Peres insist on running again in national elections at the head of the Labor list?

Sharon knows this list very well. His father was a farmer and not a historian, but his place in Israel's history troubles him just as it does his adversary, the historian's son. Yosef Lapid told Maariv this week about his bizarre meeting with the prime minister last Wednesday, disengagement day. Sharon talked mainly about Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, taking pride in his close relations with Israel's founder. That was what he was thinking about when the whole country was glued to the reality show from Gush Katif.

Lapid called on Sharon to retire at his high point, and not to debase himself with a humiliating campaign in the Likud. The prime minister thinks otherwise. He very much wants another term. In conversations with journalists, Sharon assures them that his place is in the Likud; that he will run in his party and defeat Netanyahu. With cabinet ministers he shares his concern over the polls predicting his sorry showing in the primaries. Sharon's camp beams optimism. They are convinced the Israelis love "Arik" and will vote for him, no matter what party he is in. That if he is thrown out of the Likud, he will leave and fight from there. That he is more successful than Netanyahu in political sleight of hand. That his message will be better received than the terror scare-tactics of the former finance minister. That his campaign in the Likud will find soldiers either for lack of choice, for fear of a political crash-landing (Shaul Mofaz), or for hatred of Netanyahu (Silvan Shalom).

On the other hand, past experience and the fickleness of the public threaten to sink Sharon as they did his predecessors. Will Sharon break the historical thread? Or will his last mission turn out to be mission impossible?