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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Public view of Sharon changes a year after his stroke

Public view of Sharon changes a year after his stroke

Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post

The mind reels at all this country has gone through since Ariel Sharon suffered a significant stroke a year ago on Thursday, and his powers were passed to Ehud Olmert.

Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections, and Kadima won at the ballot box in Israel, although with considerably less support than would have been the case had Sharon led the Kadima ticket.

Amona was evacuated violently, in complete contrast to the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip in August 2005.

Olmert unveiled his realignment plan; President Moshe Katsav and Justice Minister Haim Ramon became embroiled in separate sex scandals; Kassam rockets continued to fall on the western Negev; Gilad Shalit was kidnapped; Elad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped; the IDF went to war in Lebanon; the IDF did not decisively win the war in Lebanon; UNIFIL marched into Lebanon; Kassam rockets continued to fall on the western Negev; the IDF could not stop the Kassam rockets on the western Negev; Iran posed an existential threat.

Even by the machine-gun pace of the news cycle one is accustomed to in Israel, 2006 seemed an extraordinary year of events, tumult and change.

One of the major changes the year wrought was that it is now difficult for the average citizen to look at the various institutions that form the building blocks of this society with much confidence.

Nearly every institution has been tainted: the presidency, by the Katsav scandal; the Prime Minister's Office, by various allegations of scandals there; the Knesset, by its day-to-day behavior; the IDF, by its shoddy performance during the summer's war; the Justice Ministry, by Haim Ramon's kiss and its aftermath; the Rabbinate, by the low public standing of Israel's two chief rabbis; the police, by the Benny Sela escape; and now the tax authorities.

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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