Cracks in the Mask

After the crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War, a crate full of steaks was brought to Ariel Sharon's command headquarters. Sharon pulled out piece after piece of meat and voraciously wolfed them down.

1. All in the family

After the crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War, a crate full of steaks was brought to Ariel Sharon's command headquarters. Sharon pulled out piece after piece of meat and voraciously wolfed them down. When he was offered coffee for dessert, he politely requested it with "no sugar, because of the diet." Twenty-nine years later, Omri Sharon was sitting in Moshe Dadash's kitchen in Jerusalem, eating slice after slice of rare beef filets. Journalist Ari Shavit, who was also present and witnessed the spectacle, quoted Omri's explanation for this show of gluttony (Ha'aretz Magazine, December 13, 2002): "When you weigh 120 kilos, you have to stuff your face so you don't lose weight."

Genetics apparently have quite a pronounced influence in the Sharon family - as is also evident in father and son's shared sense of humor. They also seem to share the same blind spot that keeps them from knowing where boundaries are, and from being able to resist their powerful impulses. After he was elected prime minister, Sharon remarked that if he'd listened to Omri, he could have been elected years before. Now that clouds of suspicion are gathering over Omri as questions are raised about the methods he used to promote his father's victory in the Likud and his own election to the party's Knesset list, Ariel Sharon's comment about his son's talents suddenly has more dubious connotations: Just what bits of his son's advice should Sharon have followed in order to have become the national leader prior to February, 2001?

Nothing has been proved about the supposed misdeeds of Omri Sharon and his brother, Gilad. For now, the reports about their exploits are no more than journalistic information whose criminal significance, if there is any, remains to be clarified by investigative and law-enforcement authorities. Ariel Sharon, however, has a rich public past that, as he completes his first term as prime minister, merits examination.

Sharon became prime minister even after the Kahan Commission found that he gave then prime minister Menachem Begin "rosy reports" about the developments in the Lebanon War; after the Tel Aviv District Court (in Sharon's libel suit against Ha'aretz) found that he "did not deal truthfully" with Begin during that war; after then chief of staff Moshe Dayan learned that Sharon had violated his order and, by circuitous means, obtained permission to enter the Mitla Pass during the Sinai Campaign; and after other Israel Defense Force commanders were critical of his behavior and questioned his honesty.

In the last election and since then, this troubling past was cloaked in a disguise that Sharon's sons and advisers devised for him. Sharon was presented as a mature, experienced statesman, a likable fellow and fierce warrior who holds the answer to Yasser Arafat's murderous terror. The formula worked, and he was elected by an unprecedented margin. Sticking to the image that was designed for him during his tenure as prime minister, Sharon made sure to declare on numerous occasions just how important he considers his personal credibility to be. The public, and a lot of the press as well, swallowed it hook, line and sinker. In the deceptive world of media spin, it was enough for Sharon to declare himself a man of integrity for people to see him as such.

Menachem Begin once said that the truth has a marvelous power: Even if it takes time, it will eventually break through and surface. His son, Benny Begin, expressed some doubt about this appraisal: Is the truth revealed when it's still relevant? Now, less than two years since Sharon was elected, his mask is starting to crack. And anyone who was paying close attention to his words and deeds as prime minister would have already noticed the crude stitches with which it has been held together.

2. An unwritten law

In his victory speech on February 6, 2001, Sharon proclaimed his fidelity to the rule of law and promised to respect the decisions of the Supreme Court. But when he sat across from the state comptroller, former Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg, he adamantly denied ever having signed any check related to the financing of his previous election campaign for the Likud leadership. The comptroller told Sharon that in his file, there was a check signed by him and made out to David Spector (a private investigator who was employed as a consultant by the Sharon campaign).

Sharon's explanation: "My son, Omri, may have given me a check to sign. I myself was not involved in the financial side of the election campaign."

The comptroller pulled out the check and showed Sharon that he was the one who had filled out all its details - not just the signature. Sharon admitted: "I can't deny that that's my handwriting."

Sharon's son, Omri, maintained his right to silence when he was questioned by the police regarding the circumstances of his fund-raising for his father's previous election campaign. Now, in this campaign, he's facing suspicion about inappropriate methods that may have been used to register Likud voters in order to assure his election and his father's. It's hard not to wonder: In a family that prides itself on being so close-knit, how separate can the actions of the son and the father be, when both are ultimately after the same objective?

Sharon's faithfulness to the rule of law also ought to be considered in light of his prodigious efforts to persuade the Likud members of the Central Elections Committee to vote against Justice Mishael Cheshin's position that Shaul Mofaz's candidacy should be disqualified. Firing MK Naomi Blumenthal was a proper step in terms of upholding public norms, but it was accompanied by the ineluctable impression of a more brazen motive at work. The same was true with the formation of the Sheetrit committee, charged with exploring ways to modify the procedures for the party's primaries, which was transparently intended to distract attention from the corruption exposed in the Likud, under the pretense that it would actually have the ability to force the current Knesset to amend the law on this matter.

Sharon has "solved" problems concerning the management of affairs of state by forming ad-hoc committees and making governmental decisions (over 2,500) - some of which went no further than a declaration and had no practical consequences. He brushed off the attorney general's directives that he put a halt to his son's involvement in affairs of state and even told the High Court of Justice that his son's missions to Yasser Arafat "save lives." He has been very clever in dealing with his ministers, often telling them what they want to hear, even if it means expressing contradictory positions (hawkish ones to Natan Sharansky and dovish ones to Dan Meridor). He did not hesitate to go behind the backs of Shimon Peres (the Beit Hanoun raid, the assassination of Ali Mustafa, the seizure of Orient House) and Silvan Shalom (the agreement with the Governor of the Bank of Israel to cut the budget in return for a reduction in the interest rate).

His tenure has been characterized by the issuing of statements and the generation of leaks that created the impression that important moves were being made. In practice, they were frequently intended to meet the pressing political needs of the moment, and were not as substantial as they were made out to be. For example, on various occasions, Sharon announced that he had found the way to deal with Palestinian terror. Recently, he has implied that approval of the American loan guarantees is imminent, warned about nuclear weapons in Libya and asserted that weapons of mass destruction have been transferred from Iraq to Syria.

3. Diplomatic refuge

Sharon's disingenuous behavior has also been evident in the diplomatic arena. Despite his post-election announcement that he was prepared for a compromise with the Palestinians even if it entailed painful concessions, he has not lifted a finger to make progress toward an agreement. He expressed his agreement in principle to American diplomatic initiatives - the Mitchell report, the Tenet document, the Bush plan, the "road map" - but appended difficult-to-meet conditions to each one, which contributed significantly to their abandonment or deferment. When the American administration appeared to launch a serious diplomatic initiative aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on a division of the land between two states with Jerusalem as their capital, Sharon protested that Israel would not be another Czechoslovakia. He responded to the Saudi peace initiative by saying that he was taking undisclosed measures to test its seriousness. And when the Arab leaders at the Beirut summit stated their willingness to solve the conflict once and for all, he expressed the fond wish that he could go there and talk to them face to face.

After Rehavam Ze'evi was assassinated, Sharon said that the government would uphold his legacy - i.e., holding onto all of the historic Land of Israel. Just a week later, Sharon took the Knesset podium and announced that he was ready to make painful concessions for the sake of true peace. When word got out about an interim agreement being worked out by Peres and Abu Ala, Sharon at first asserted that there was no such thing. Peres protested and the prime minister, who needed Labor's vote for the state budget, confirmed that he did know about the document and about the contacts between the two that preceded its publication. Sharon adhered to his pledge not to conduct negotiations under fire and not to meet with Arafat, but he sent his son, Omri, to do just that.

He told hawkish Likud ministers that he intends to expel Arafat, but he promised President Bush that he would refrain from touching the Palestinian leader. When lulls were achieved in the onslaught of terror attacks, Sharon did not seize the opportunity to develop a diplomatic initiative. Instead, on a number of occasions, he ordered the assassinations of major figures in the terrorist organizations - actions that contributed to the re-escalation of the situation.

While he expressed assent for the establishment of a Palestinian state, the conditions he set forth voided these avowals of any practical meaning. He tried to mollify members of the Likud Central Committee who were outraged by his apparent acceptance of a Palestinian state (declared in a speech before a teachers' convention) by saying that he had forgotten to mention the accompanying conditions because he was distracted by all the pretty women in the audience. In November 2001, Sharon announced that he and Peres were studying a diplomatic plan; then he reassured the right-wing ministers that the announcement was for "propaganda" purposes only.

In interviews before Rosh Hashanah three months ago, Sharon again announced that he had a plan for achieving an accord with the Palestinians. Just what this plan is remains a mystery. Yet, this week, after the terror attack at the old central bus station in Tel Aviv, Sharon decided to prevent the Palestinian delegation from traveling to London to participate in an international meeting on the introduction of reforms in the Palestinian Authority. He also decided to prohibit the meeting of the Palestinian parliament, which was due to discuss a proposal to establish a prime minister's post in the PA that could have served to dilute Arafat's power. These were exactly the conditions that Sharon insisted upon when he gave his preliminary consent to the Bush plan and to the road map.

But that didn't stop him from telling the cabinet this week that he sees "a real opportunity for the start of a political process" and that he won't let it slip away.

4. The gray market

When leading economists and businesspeople predicted at the Caesarea Conference last July that there were even worse times ahead for the Israeli economy, Sharon disputed the gloomy forecasts and contended that just saying such things was damaging to the national economy. Israel's economic plight has now reached such a dangerous point that the government and its emissaries are beseeching the American administration to provide loan guarantees and a special grant totaling NIS 12 billion in order to halt the economy's slide.

Concern over the possibility of a financial collapse was what prompted Sharon to fire the Shas ministers when they did not support Silvan Shalom's economic plan. The main motive for the move was revealed by Avigdor Yitzhaki, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, who naively commented publicly that this step was designed to change the next day's headlines, to demonstrate leadership and to stabilize the shekel and the stock market. The objective was achieved. And it wasn't long until the Shas ministers were back in the government, after they promised to support the plan. They said that they had been assured that the government would be more accommodating to their demands. Sharon's people denied it. In fact, an attempt was made to reduce the cutbacks in stipends for large families (as Shas wanted), but it was thwarted by legal opinions.

In late 2001, Sharon caved in to the striking civil servants and dockworkers and canceled the plan to build a private port in Ashdod. This week, he gave in to the quarry workers. He promised Bank of Israel Governor David Klein that he would cut NIS 6 billion from the state budget and annul the populist legislation in the Knesset. In return, Klein agreed to lower the interest rate by 2 percent. Sharon's side of the bargain was eroded when he and Labor Party leaders surrendered to the lobbying of the ultra-Orthodox and of the Negev and Galilee communities. The budget passed by the Knesset was unrealistic and the results of this were reflected in the recent unguarded comments made by the Bank of Israel Governor and in the data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Sharon's response to the harsh evidence? Sharp rebukes for Klein and the director of the CBS.

5. The Arab boycott

One of the first steps that Sharon took after being elected was to invite the heads of the Arab sector to meet with him. This was a wise step, given the sense of alienation that developed among the Arab minority in wake of the October 2000 riots, a resentment that was made manifest in the Arab boycott of the elections for prime minister. The invited guests came away pleased: Sharon had been a wonderfully gracious and friendly host. He was so earnest in his goodwill that he urged them to call him anytime and gave them his phone numbers.

During the 22 months that have passed since then, Sharon has expressed the following positions: He was ready to support Shas' demand that would have discriminated financially against Arab families with many children; he supported MK Haim Druckman's bill to deny Israeli Arabs the right to purchase land in Jewish communal settlements; he supported Minister Eli Yishai's decision to strip Arabs found to be involved in terror attacks of their citizenship; he gave backing to the Likud representatives on the CEC who supported the approval of Baruch Marzel's candidacy and wished to disqualify Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara. And in an interview three months ago, he said the following: "We cannot conclude agreements with the Arab world until a solution is found for the problem of Israel's Arabs."

Apparently, he thinks that some of this country's Jews are going overboard in their self-flagellation over the state's oppression of its Arabs.