What Ariel Sharon Would Have Said to Netanyahu Today

There is a reason why these leaders didn't get along – Netanyahu is the ultimate status quo politician, while Sharon, fearing the dangers of do-nothing politics, hated to leave things as they are.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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File photo: Netanyahu and Sharon in the Knesset.
File photo: Netanyahu and Sharon in the Knesset. Credit: Lior Mizrachi / Baubau
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

A year has passed since the death of former-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As Israel’s election campaign moves into high gear, it is interesting to imagine what Sharon, if he were alive and healthy, might have thought today.

It is likely that he would not have been happy. He would have looked upon the antics and evasions of the election season with a combination of disdain and dismay. As a leader in this era when leadership is lacking and as an activist in a period of political passivity, Sharon, I imagine, would have dismissed both the right and the left. He would have bemoaned the absence of courage, clarity and vision on both sides of the political spectrum.

He would have been especially critical of Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon's government over Israel's disengagement from Gaza, and marshalled the forces of the hard right against him. Back then, Netanyahu dreamed of seizing the Prime Minister's Office. Eventually, he did. But were Sharon alive today, he would note with a subtle smile that Bibi is now fending off the forces to his right, who fight his premiership with no less ferocity than he fought Sharon's in 2005.

Sharon would not have been surprised by Netanyahu’s inability to pull ahead of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni's joint slate in the polls, or his political troubles with the Americans and Europeans. Sharon's guiding principle was to have a plan. Upon assuming office in 2001, he set aside the fanaticism of his younger days without abandoning the daring approach he once displayed on the battlefield; he knew that to keep the loyalty of voters on the right and to win over those in the center, he would need to present a sensible political program. Such a program would have to provide security for Israel’s citizens while offering them a measure of hope. And it would have to be presented with precision and defended without excuses or reservations.

Sharon did all of those things. He withdrew from the cesspool of Gaza. He promised to evacuate some outlying settlements in the West Bank, clearly suggesting a willingness to pull back other outposts beyond the security fence. He befriended U.S. President George W. Bush, proving he was a reliable negotiator and a man of his word; and he extracted from the president written assurances that Israel could expect to retain the settlement blocs when peace was eventually achieved. If Sharon had not been felled by illness, I have little doubt that Israel would have withdrawn from additional settlements, while leaving Israel’s military installations in place. I am also sure he would have responded to rockets from the Gaza Strip with far greater speed and force than did his successors.

Sharon was no wide-eyed peacenik. He carried out withdrawals and won American assurances because he was skeptical about the Palestinians' capability of achieving real peace in the foreseeable future, and because he knew that doing nothing would incite his political opponents at home and guarantee mischief from Israel’s enemies abroad. Better to be decisive and take the heat. Of this he was certain: There is no such thing as a political vacuum, and a political leader who does not act is soon overwhelmed by events.

This brings me back to Netanyahu, Sharon’s old political foe. I imagine a conversation between the old soldier, Israel’s last great political leader, and the now-not-so-young prime minister, ever cautious and careful. "Bibi," Sharon would ask, "What is your plan? What is your alternative to the fragile and tottering status quo? How will Israel hold on to both territory and democracy? How will we separate from the Palestinians in order to avoid a bi-national state? How will we appease the allies whose support we require?" The conversation would be a difficult one because these are questions that Netanyahu and his closest allies refuse to answer. There is a reason why Sharon and Netanyahu didn't get along: Netanyahu is the ultimate status quo politician, while Sharon, fearing the dangers of do-nothing politics, hated to leave things as they are.

Yet even with all his distaste for Netanyahu, I am not sure that Sharon would have been enthusiastic at all about the political alternatives. I suspect that he would have cared little for the Isaac Herzog-Tzipi Livni team, even though Livni was something of a Sharon protégé. He would see that they would improve Israel’s relations with America, and of that he would have approved, yet, profoundly doubtful that the Palestinians could deliver, he would have asked the duo the same questions that he asked Netanyahu: "If the negotiations that you call for don’t happen, or don’t lead to peace, what will you do? What is your plan? And if you have one, why not tell us exactly what it is and then fight for it?"

Ariel Sharon, if he were here today, would be entitled to ask these questions. After all, this difficult and complicated leader, a heroic soldier and man of extremes, became, to the surprise of many, a great statesman. He reduced Israel’s isolation, strengthened ties with her greatest friend, and presented a clear-headed plan to protect her interests and promote her values. One year since his passing, those who aspire to lead the Jewish state could do far worse than to follow his example.

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 in Westfield, New Jersey.

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