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A Confident Failure

Despite questions over Ariel Sharon's leadership, polls show an approval rating at 71 percent.

by Larry Derfner

August 15, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Talk about cognitive dissonance. The mood in Israel may never have been so hopeless, the indices of quality of life may never have pointed so sharply downward, and yet the calmest, most content person in the country appears to be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Politically, at least, he's not out of touch with reality at all. The most recent poll in Yediot Aharonot, the country's largest newspaper, showed Sharon getting an approval rating of 71 percent.

Here is a man who was elected by a landslide on the promise of peace and security, running on the strength of his reputation as a vanquisher of Arab terror. "I know the Arabs and the Arabs know me," he would repeat at rallies, implying as broadly as possible that the Palestinians would cower and quit the intifada as soon as he took over, and masses of Israelis actually believed it.

Yet here is Sharon, in the second half of his second year in office, and terror continues to run wild. Nothing the old warrior has done has put more than a temporary crimp in the intifada. He orders the assassinations of terror commanders, and the Palestinians retaliate with multiple bombings or the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister. And Sharon doesn't exhibit any doubt, and certainly doesn't change -- what doesn't work with force, works with more force, as the old Israeli cliché goes, and the body counts continue to soar on both sides.

Every public opinion poll shows Israelis with a categorically bleak view of the future -- there is little faith in a military conclusion to the fighting, and none whatsoever in a political solution -- not with Yasser Arafat, not with Sharon, certainly not with both of them together. The Bush administration, for its part, has shown itself to be decisively irrelevant. While right-wingers are thrilled that the White House is so friendly to their leader, an objective reading of the Israeli-U.S. relationship is that America has given Israel its blessing to prosecute an unsuccessful war on terror.

Then there is that other failing enterprise, the Israeli economy. People are losing their jobs and their businesses, public services are deteriorating because they have more and more needy clients and less and less money, yet the Sharon government is following the most fiscally "prudent" and socially indifferent policy ever seen during hard times. Spending for the settlements and yeshiva students continues apace, while aid to sundry communities of have-nots is being slashed. Meanwhile, Sharon and Finance Minster Silvan Shalom claim that the ranks of unemployed are growing because they're too spoiled on "generous" benefits to work.

With terror stalking the streets, reserve soldiers getting called up for longer and longer duty in the West Bank and Gaza, absolutely no hope for peace on the horizon, an economy that's drying up, conditions would seem ripe for an upheaval, the kind that political leaders don't like to contemplate.

But the streets of Israel are quiet. People who have the money to go overseas for a summer vacation are flying off with unimaginable relief; those without the money watch TV and stay out of the heat. Some go to restaurants and movies, others are too scared.

Why is Sharon still so popular? Despite the condition of the country, he indisputably projects leadership -- in the strength of his bearing, his vitality -- even at 74 -- his intimidating presence, his intelligence, his war record. He is a general of the old school, and this is a comforting to a frightened nation.

Maybe the country's despair is working in Sharon's favor. It may be that Israelis have decided that whatever they do, the Palestinians are going to keep trying to kill them, and their only choice to whether to kill back or not, so they choose killing back, which is what Sharon is doing.

One thing that's certain is that Sharon benefits from the dearth of alternative leadership in the country. Within the Likud he is being challenged by Benjamin Netanyahu, but now that Sharon has invaded the West Bank and Gaza, Netanyahu no longer outflanks him on the right. The only move Netanyahu can suggest that Sharon hasn't taken yet is expelling Arafat, and while this would likely be hugely popular, few but the extreme right think it's the solution to terror, and many are frightened, with good reason, that it might only make terror worse.

Journalist Amnon Abramovitch has said Israel's current political leadership is so poor as to constitute a "strategic threat" to the country's survival, and he seems to have a point.

In Labor, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer have degraded what remains Israel's largest political party by sticking with Sharon no matter what he does or doesn't do. The one bright spot for the left came last week as Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, a very liberal ex-general who wants to get out of both the Sharon government and the settlements, said he would run for the Labor Party leadership. Yet he will have a hard time beating Ben-Eliezer, who controls the party establishment, and even if Mitzna does take over Labor, he would be a longshot against Sharon because the left has no one anymore but its born-and-bred, hard-core supporters.

So Sharon has still has reason to be confident. But for how long?

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