January/February 2001
Western Wall

All Things to All People

By Larry Derfner

(February 5) -- Ariel Sharon has built up the makings of a sweeping electoral victory, but the breadth of his support means he has many different mandates to fulfill. --

Barring any supernatural occurrences, Likud prime-ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon is going to win tomorrow, and win big. Public-opinion pollster Hanoch Smith thinks he's probably going to go over 60 percent.

The Likud leader's margin in the polls over Prime Minister Ehud Barak actually stretched last week - Smith put it at 22%, and the Gallup Poll in Ma'ariv discerned a 20% gap. The hapless conclusion of the Taba talks, which the Barak government had touted as a last-gasp attempt at peace, may be the reason, Smith speculates.

Anything even close to those poll figures on Tuesday would constitute a landslide victory. And a prime minister who gets elected by a landslide enters office with a solid mandate from the public. Sharon almost certainly will have it. The question is: a mandate to do what?

"He'll have a mandate to make peace," says Shoshana, a felafel-stand owner in Tel Aviv's working-class Hatikva Quarter.

And if, as the Barak campaign warns, Sharon doesn't bring peace, but war - will Sharon have a mandate then?

"If there's war, there's war," replies Shoshana. "What we've got now is war. It's worse than war, with people getting shot all the time. Not just soldiers, but civilians too."

If war breaks out, Shoshana concludes, it will be the Palestinians' doing. "Sharon won't be to blame, the Arabs will," she says. Even if the worst comes to pass, she declares, Israelis will rally behind their leader.

Asked to describe Sharon's view of his coming mandate, sources close to the Likud leader speak of "giving people back their personal security" by introducing "new rules to the game": scrapping the Oslo Accord, conditioning negotiations on an end to violence; making the top echelons in the Palestinian Authority pay a "personal price" for terror; ending all talk about further territorial concessions, compromise on Jerusalem or repatriation of any refugees.

And if the Palestinians don't play according to Sharon's rules, if they step up the intifada?

Sharon's circle believes the Palestinians will eventually see reason.

Maybe not right away; they're threatening to escalate the violence after Sharon wins the election, the sources note, echoing recent forecasts by the IDF. But the Arab world is not prepared to go to war for the Palestinians' sake, the sources point out, and the Palestinians know this.

"But if they want a war, they can have a war," says one source. "Arafat is going to know that if he intensifies the situation, there will be a response in kind."

And once he knows this, the source maintains, then peace - Sharon-style - will arrive.

WHEN speaking with Sharon voters and those closest to him about the nature of his mandate, what's most striking is the utter, even carefree confidence they display in telling how and why the 72-year-old warrior will fulfill it, and deliver the peace he promises.

As if it's the most natural thing in the world that Sharon - who fought the Lebanon War in an unsuccessful attempt to wipe out Palestinian terror, and whose visit to the Temple Mount on September 28 set off the current intifada - should succeed where everyone else in history has failed. And, what's more, that he should do this - put an end to the Jews' century of war with the Palestinians - opposite his No. 1 enemy of the last two generations, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

"Because the public is so angry at Barak, they're not in the mood to ask hard questions about Sharon," says Smith. Israelis expect the Likud leader to apply more "toughness" to the Palestinians, to forge a peace that requires much less territorial concession than Barak has offered, the pollster continues.

Today there is no longer an even split between those who sympathize with Sharon's harsh methods and those who don't; after four months of guerrilla war in the face of an unprecedented peace offer by Barak, Israelis are lopsided in favor of Sharon's rough prescription for peace.

In contrast to most of the rest of the world, Smith says, "Israelis don't think Barak used too much force against the intifada and riots by the Israeli Arabs. They think he didn't use enough."

This is borne out by the words of Sharon voters. They don't seem to have noticed that alongside the some 50 Israelis killed in the intifada, over 300 Palestinians have been killed as well. They seem unaware of the assassinations of intifada leaders, and of the virtual stranglehold the IDF has placed around Palestinian cities and villages.

"Barak doesn't use the army's power. He ties the soldiers' hands. As far as I'm concerned, he's a wimp," says Shoshana.

Adds Nahum Shefer, a Jerusalem printer waiting for a bus on Jaffa Road, "Barak surrendered. They fire at Jerusalem and he doesn't respond. No country in the world would tolerate attacks on its capital."

What mandate would Sharon have to protect Jerusalem?

"To clean out Beit Jala," Shefer says, naming the Palestinian village where attacks on Gilo originate. By "clean out," he doesn't mean to kill the residents or even destroy the village; he means simply sending the IDF in there and leaving it to Sharon and the generals.

"They know plenty of ways to stop the violence," Shefer says.

And if such an escalation brought an escalation in turn from the Palestinians, if it led to the war that so many Israelis fear?

"A war would be better than what we have now. They can fire at us on Jaffa Road," Shefer replies.

But many Sharon supporters speak blithely about war, as if nothing could be worse than the way things are, and they don't think it's going to happen. They think the Arabs are afraid of Sharon. When he says on the campaign trail, "I know the Arabs and the Arabs know me," a very clear message comes through to the public.

"Why are the Arabs afraid of Sharon?" Shoshana asks rhetorically. "Because he's a man of war, a strong man."

Says Yaffa, a customer in a Hatikva Quarter beauty parlor, "The Arabs are cowards. Sharon knows how to make war against them, like he did at the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War - he gives it to them but good. If he doesn't give it to them this time, there won't be peace. If Barak had done that right at the start of the intifada, they would have kept quiet and everything would have ended there."

Sources close to Sharon dismiss all the talk, by both his supporters and opponents, that he's going to steamroller the Palestinians.

Military force is just one component of his strategy; Sharon has other "sticks" to apply, such as economic sanctions on the PA, such as restricting the freedom of movement of Palestinian VIPs. And there are also carrots: "Territorial contiguity, so Palestinians wouldn't have to pass through Israeli checkpoints. And there could be joint economic projects, so the Palestinians on the ground would see some improvements in their lives, instead of watching all the money go into the hands of all these corrupt PA officials," says one source.

YET stopping the violence and canceling out Barak's territorial concessions aren't the only elements of Sharon's mandate, the source continues. Healing the rift between the secular and religious via compromise is another, and here Sharon's public support becomes less clear-cut.

He will have overwhelming support from the religious, especially the haredim - "like African-Americans vote for the Democrats," says Smith.

But he should also garner roughly two-thirds of the Russian vote, and the Russians are considered adamant secularists who deeply resent Orthodox control over their lives.

In Jerusalem, Moshe Levy, 26, a Shas supporter and yeshiva student, says haredim like himself are less concerned with issues of war and peace.

"I'm not so sure that we should be in those settlements near Nablus, for instance. It's a matter of pikuah nefesh [the safeguarding of life]," he says. In line with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's dictate, Levy says he is voting Sharon "because Barak is against the haredim."

With near-unanimous haredi support, what will Sharon's mandate be with regard to religious matters?

"To maintain the status quo, and to let haredim live their lives," Levy says. "To keep providing funds for haredim, and not to take yeshiva students away from their Torah studies by drafting them into the army. And to forget about this secular revolution."

Asked if such a mandate might clash with the mandate the Russian voters are giving Sharon, Levy replies that the Russians represent the "right-wing" part of Sharon's constituency, so their concerns are over the intifada and territory; the haredim are the religious wing, and so have primacy on religious issues.

In a Bat Yam real-estate office, agent Michael Kuchtin, a Russian immigrant and Sharon supporter, echoes Levy's right-wing sentiments. The Likud leader's mandate, Kuchtin says, will be to "make peace, but with power."

The Barak government's attempt to make peace by mutual consent proved a failure, he maintains, adding, "What we've got now is Chechnya."

Yet the prospect of the religious parties retaking power doesn't faze him. His remarks illustrate why Barak's fear campaign about Shas didn't work with Russian voters. Kuchtin is very cynical about government's power to change the daily life of citizens, for either better or worse.

He's not interested in the proposed package of laws that constitute the "secular revolution": "That's something that's going to be decided by the politicians, it's all politics," he says. He's not worried about a crackdown on Russian delicatessens that sell pork: "Whoever wants to buy pork, buys it, including customers who wear kippot."

The Shas card doesn't turn him against Sharon or towards Barak. "Tell me, will this be the first time the haredim are in the government?" he asks sarcastically.

FURTHER right than the Russians in the Sharon camp are the settlers.

For Benny Katzover, one of the original Gush Emunim activists who now is considered part of the movement's "old guard," Sharon's mandate is not only to preserve the settlements, but to expand them and build new ones.

"Failure to do this would send a message of weakness, and encourage the Palestinians to press their demands and continue the terror." Failure to bulk up the settlements, which Sharon did in the past as, by turns, agriculture and housing minister, would be a violation of his mandate, Katzover maintains.

Sharon will also come in with the mandate to "dismantle the PA in stages," Katzover continues. This means shutting down the PA television and radio stations to stop the incitement to violence. (A source close to Sharon says an end to broadcast incitement will be a condition for holding negotiations.) It also means collecting guns from PA policemen.

It means "retaking" Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue in Jericho, and areas adjacent to Netzarim, Hebron, and Psagot, where Palestinians fire on settlers and the soldiers defending them, Katzover continues.

If the Palestinians resist these moves, there would likely be armed confrontations that would result in, at least in the short term, Israeli casualties, Katzover acknowledges.

"And if it was necessary, if it couldn't be avoided, then Sharon would also have the mandate to recapture the refugee camps and other Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank," he says.

All this is implicit, Katzover maintains, in Sharon's "broad public mandate to be done with the miserable Oslo Accords, restore public security, end the concessions of the Barak government, and gradually dismantle the PA."

Yet Sharon's constituency is made up of more than Israeli "tribes" like settlers, haredim, Russians, and Sephardi slum-dwellers; he's also cut deeply into the native-born Israeli middle class, which by and large seems willing to make certain concessions and abhors the thought of reconquering Gaza - but just wants the trouble to go away.

Shmuel Abadi, 62, who owns a Bat Yam real-estate agency, says Sharon's mandate includes "one, no right of return. Two, Jerusalem is ours."

But he doesn't want to hear about resuming the occupation. "Nobody in Israel will tolerate sending our soldiers back to Gaza, no way, shape or form."

Neither does he want to hear about, for instance, ultimatums regarding the return of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah at the start of the intifada. "No ultimatums, no bombing. Hizbullah isn't a government, you can't deal with them that way. Nobody wants another war in Lebanon."

At another point, though, he says, "The Arabs already lost five wars. If they want another one, they'll get it."

POLLSTER Smith doesn't think the public is too concerned about a national unity government. "They just want a government that works," he notes.

Yet a national unity government is crucial to Sharon, say his people. He feels he needs a broad base of support to draw those new rules of the game with the Palestinians, and to effect a "national reconciliation" between religious and secular, Right and Left, rich and poor, they say.

This push for a national unity government could mesh perfectly with the foiling of the Palestinian strategy for turning Sharon's imminent election to their favor, says one Sharon source, speaking hypothetically.

"They want to escalate the conflict on the ground so the UN will come in - we know this. But the Israeli public would interpret this to mean that the Palestinians want war, in which case the public would want a government of national emergency, and who would they see as the right man to lead the country in war? Sharon."

With the overwhelming majority that's shaping up for Sharon, he will be able to "determine the mandate any way he likes," says Smith. "He'll have a huge mandate because he'll have a huge majority."

His only limitation will be the divided Knesset, but it could be a formidable one, the pollster warns.

Sharon voter Shoshana believes that even this obstacle, which has hobbled Barak, and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu before him, won't stop her man.

"The people are giving Sharon the mandate to do whatever he wants. He's a strong man, so it's all in his hands."

©2001 - Jerusalem Post
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