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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sharon's image has changed

One of the first stories I covered on this blog, one year ago today, was the stroke that left Ariel Sharon in a coma from which he has not emerged. At the time, Sharon was at the top of the Israeli political pyramid, with his Kadima Achora party expected to rack up a significant victory in the then-upcoming elections. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the elements of Sharon's popularity were a bubble that lacked substance. This is from Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post:
Another thing that has changed dramatically over the last year has been Sharon's legacy.

When he was felled by his stroke last year, Sharon was riding a wave of unprecedented popularity. He pulled the Gaza disengagement off without a hitch, he broke the Likud-Labor hegemony over politics in the country, he enjoyed the confidence of a large part of the population who looked at him and felt that here was a man who selflessly placed the interests of the country above his own.

As was the case when Sharon was a general, people were willing to follow him when he was prime minister, not necessarily because they were sure of where he was leading, but because he was the one who was doing the leading.

Israelis love the daring, the audacious; the more daring and audacious, the more they love it. Disengagement was daring and audacious, so people loved it. Something this audacious must be brilliant, no?

Well, if the proof were in the pudding, then many would now answer that question with a "no." And this is something that has changed dramatically in the year since Sharon had his stroke: people are looking differently at his legacy, and at the state of affairs he left behind.

Olmert's election campaign in the spring was based on two main pillars: Sharon's "legacy" and realignment. In the meantime, realignment has been tossed out the window, overtaken by the chaos from Gaza and the war in Lebanon. More and more people having come to the realization that unilateralism simply doesn't work, and that you can't just leave an area and hope for the best, because if the mafia goons move in where you moved out, then - more often then not - there goes the neighborhood.

And if realignment looks different now than it did back in February and March, so does Sharon's overall legacy.

First of all, disengagement did not do what Sharon promised. Sharon wasn't warm and cuddly, and never promised that leaving Gaza would lead to a new Middle East. But he did argue that it would bolster Israel's security. He argued that if rockets fell, Israel would have the international legitimacy to take the military action to silence them forever.

But this didn't happen, and now one would be hardpressed to find many people who actually believe that with anarchy in Gaza, arms flowing under the border from Egypt, and the western Negev at the mercy of the Kassam rockets, Israel's security is better now than it was prior to disengagement.

And then there is Lebanon. Sharon knew for five years about Hizbullah's arms buildup in Lebanon, that it was stockpiling weapons, but he did nothing. Reasons for this have been proffered - that he was preoccupied with fighting Palestinian terrorism, that he was so traumatized by the first Lebanese go-around that a psychological block kept him from taking any real action to stop the buildup.

Whatever the case, the bottom line was that he didn't take action, and Israel was woefully unprepared to deal with what it found when it went to war against Hizbullah in July.

It has now been a year since Sharon had his stroke. And in that intervening year, there has also been a significant re-evaluation among many as to where his policies have left them. Those in doubt that this reevaluation is taking place should consider that according to all the recent polls, if elections were held today, Sharon's political rival and nemesis Binyamin Netanyahu would be the country's prime minister.

Polls may not predict the future, but they do indicate sentiment, and the public sentiment today regarding Sharon's policies is significantly different than what it was an action-packed and trauma-filled year ago.


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