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Sharon Has Chance To Lead Israel

December 20, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel’s political fracas has yielded a result that few had expected: Ariel Sharon, revered by some Israelis as a war hero and hated by others for his bulldozer tactics, has a realistic shot at becoming the Jewish state’s next prime minister.

Sharon’s candidacy in a planned Feb. 6 vote represents an astounding political comeback.

As defense minister in 1983 Sharon was criticized by an inquiry commission that found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Israeli-allied militiamen.

His message now is in line with his hard-line past: Prime Minister Ehud Barak has offered the Palestinians too much in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, projected weakness that invited the current spasm of violence there, and has been too reluctant to strike back.

But in terms of style, it’s a kinder, gentler ``Arik″ _ a white-haired man softly admitting to past mistakes, promising to appoint Barak as defense minister, and filling the land with colorful signs that say ``Only Sharon will bring peace.″

``I’ve learned something, and you’ve learned something,″ the 72-year-old Sharon tells interviewers, alluding to once-stormy relations with the media and political rivals that earned him the nickname ``Bulldozer.″

Sharon became the opposition Likud’s default candidate after former premier Benjamin Netanyahu bowed out of the race after a week of political jockeying.

Polls had put Netanyahu far ahead of Barak, whose support seems to wane with each day of violence; most of the more than 330 fatalities have been Palestinians, but Israelis’ faith in Barak’s peace policies has been badly undermined.

Sharon’s edge is somewhat smaller, polls suggest _ but startling nonetheless.

``Under the most bizarre conditions, at the end of his career, he finally gets to run for prime minister,″ said Barry Rubin, deputy director of Bar-Ilan University’s BESA center for strategic studies. ``It’s amazing.″

Rubin said that Sharon could win, but he will be extremely vulnerable to his old image. Barak _ who finally pulled Israeli troops out of Lebanon this year _ could remind voters that it was Sharon who put them there two decades before.

``Sharon has a lot of negatives,″ he said. ``People will ask: do you really want to make Arik Sharon prime minister? There are a lot of people who will not be able to bring themselves to vote for him.″

Many Palestinians would view a Sharon victory as nightmarish confirmation of their worst image of Israel.

``If Sharon is elected, it will be primarily an Israeli problem,″ said Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi. ``If they choose a person of his standing and history, then this will be very detrimental to Israel’s standing and its moral fiber, and also to the prospects of peace.″

Sharon first came to public light in the 1950s as head of a special paratroop squad famed for daring cross-border raids into Jordan against Palestinian guerrillas there. He boasts of crushing unrest in the Gaza Strip as the army commander there in 1971.

Although he rose to a general’s rank, it was probably his reputation for recklessness that denied him the chief-of-staff job.

Menachem Begin only reluctantly appointed him defense minister in 1981. A year later Sharon masterminded an invasion of Lebanon aimed at destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization’s state-within-a-state there. The entanglement developed into a war against the fundamentalist militia Hezbollah, cost thousands of Israeli and Arab lives, and ended last May with a less-than-heroic pullout.

The commission set up after the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps found Sharon unfit to continue as defense minister.

He served in lesser Cabinet posts in subsequent governments _ but it was Netanyahu who began his real comeback by appointing him foreign minister in the waning months of his government, and virtually handing him the reins of the shattered Likud after Barak’s May 2000 landslide victory.

Sharon was widely blamed for the current violence, which began with protests against his Sept. 28 visit to a hotly disputed Jerusalem holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram es-Sharif.

He claimed the Palestinians used the visit as a pretext for a planned assault calculated to squeeze more concessions out of Israel _ a view that has gained wide acceptance here _ and recommended step like squeezing the Palestinians economically by cutting power supplies to their areas.

A day after Barak called a new prime ministerial election last week, it appeared Netanyahu would reclaim the party from Sharon and proceed to near-certain victory. But Netanyahu insisted parliament _ in which the right wing does not enjoy a majority _ also disperse itself; when legislators balked he bowed out.

With the deadline for prime ministerial candidacies on Thursday, a reversal by Netanyahu seems highly unlikely.

``Sharon has been given the chance of his life,″ said political analyst Yaron Dekel.

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