Election Time in Israel: Yearning for Ariel Sharon

If Israel fails to decide about the big issues during this election period, issues that Ariel Sharon had the courage to face, then this small and vulnerable country, caught in the crossfire of history, will be overwhelmed by historical processes that will not wait.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Seven years have passed since Ariel Sharon’s stroke, and with elections looming, the State of Israel is feeling his absence more acutely than ever.

Sharon is my hero - a fact that continues to dismay my leftist friends. They point out that Sharon was a divisive and extremist figure for much of his career and that I spent much of my career attacking him.

But I make no apologies. I have just returned from a two-week stay in Israel, observing up close Israel’s election campaign. I found it lively and interesting, and like most elections in Israel, often funny and a little absurd. But it was distressing to see that amidst the heated exchanges and extravagant election slogans, there was very little “big picture” thinking. Will there be an attack on Iran? Not discussed. What will be Israel’s place in the post-Cold War world? Not discussed. How will Israel retain the territories and remain a democratic state? Discussed little, if at all.

Sometimes elections pose fundamental questions for the voters to resolve. But Israel’s election is not doing that. From what I could see, it avoids those questions, and Israel’s voters are aware of it. As a result, there is an air of resignation and pessimism that is everywhere apparent—a sense that the election will decide nothing and change nothing.

And there is no question as to who is at fault: Political leaders who dodge, hedge, and can’t make up their minds.Leaders who put off the big questions and play for time. Leaders who engage in bickering and intrigue but fail to challenge and inspire.

In this respect, of course, Israel’s leaders are no worse than leaders in other democracies. Democratic leaders everywhere, challenged from the right and left, find comfort in the big, amorphous “center,” where it is always easier not to decide than to decide. And so Benjamin Netanyahu favors a two-state solution - but doesn’t. And Shelly Yacimovich wants to talk about peace - but doesn’t. And on and on.

(As an American, to be sure, I am in no position to talk. The only thing less inspiring than the American election was the political turmoil that has followed, as a broken political system has failed to grapple with taxes, deficits, and all the basic economic questions on which America’s future rests.)

But Israel is a small and vulnerable country, caught in the crossfire of history. While America is rich and powerful, Israel is not. If Israel fails to decide about the big issues, it will be overwhelmed by historical processes that will not wait.

And that is why I remember Ariel Sharon and the model of leadership that he provided. Sharon did not wait or hesitate. A warrior, a man of the hard right, and a ferocious proponent of settlement, upon becoming Prime Minister he was transformed, almost immediately, into the ultimate realist. He understood that a Palestinian state was going to come into being whether Israelis wanted it or not. In order to assure Israel’s future as a Jewish state, he dismantled Jewish settlements and ended the occupation of 1.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

When challenged by the unbending elements of Likud, Sharon walked out of his party and created a new one, Kadima, in order to offer Israel’s rightward-leaning but centrist majority a political home. In the process, he rallied Israel’s citizens and Jews throughout the world to his side. Few doubted that he would have easily won a third term as Israel’s leader had he not fallen ill.

And this too: Sharon recognized that Israel had to be strong not only militarily but diplomatically, and he saw good relations with the United States as Israel’s highest priority. Making compromises where necessary to retain American goodwill, he worked closely with the administration, producing the Road Map as a blueprint for political progress. The current atmosphere of suspicion that exists between Israel and the United States would have been unthinkable in the Sharon years.

I am immensely proud of Israel’s democracy, but I can’t help seeing in the current election a bit of a sorry spectacle. I express these views with some hesitation; I know that Israel’s leaders will be chosen by Israelis and not by American Jews. Still, looking at the dangers that lie ahead for the Jewish State, I yearn for the courage and vision of Ariel Sharon, the most trusted and charismatic political figure of his day. And I hope that, shattering expectations as he did, someone on the political scene will embrace his legacy, providing the leadership and daring that Israel needs and deserves.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

Former Prime Minister Ariel SharonCredit: GPO

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