The 'New' Sharon?

By William Safire

Strange, how conservative hawks — Churchill, de Gaulle, Nixon, now Ariel Sharon — can survive years in the political wilderness until warlike circumstances impel their nations to turn to them.

This week's 2-to-1 landslide in Israel was not an election that hinged on a sudden popularity of Sharon, or the collapse of support for Ehud Barak after Palestinians would not accept his virtual surrender at Camp David. This election marked a reinvigoration of Zionism.

Though many Israelis had flirted with "post-Zionism," evidently a strong majority of Jews in Israel awakened to realize that a secular triumph at home and a dreamy belief in the good will of implacable enemies on their borders would lead to the doom of a Jewish state.

"We need to raise a Zionist flag," Sharon told me from a car phone on the way home after his first day as prime minister-elect, "to reinstill national pride, to stimulate immigration to Israel. The nation is completely torn and has more doubts, and a lack of national pride weakens us. I'll put the portfolio of education in Likud hands to give our young people the Zionist education we didn't have for many years. We must strengthen their roots in our land."

He had promised, back when he was nobody, to return my call the first day he won the top job, and Arik, unlike some politicians, is a man of his word. "I'm going to form a new economic committee, headed by me, to prepare for a new, free economy. I'll propose immediate reduction of taxes, like you in America."

The Knesset is still split to smithereens and the defeated Labor party, with Barak suddenly quitting its leadership, is in disarray. Can Sharon form a government that will last at least until the next parliamentary elections in two years?

"I will have a national unity government," he says confidently. He's been reaching out to his friendly rival Shimon Peres, to Labor's Avraham Burg and Haim Ramon. "Burg called me today and said they would like to have it."

But Arik — if you bring in the left that vilified you as a warmonger, what about your base on the right that fears you may be co-opted by unrealistic peacemongers?

"I can talk to all of them, the secular and religious, the Orthodox. I'll make an effort to create a different atmosphere with the Arab public." Though he cautions, "Look, it's not only hard to get elected, it's also hard to be prime minister," he is delighted by the sudden realization of his lifelong dream.

Will he enlist former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in his government? Sharon did not sound enthusiastic: "I will approach him, of course, but I think that his answer will be negative." He thinks that Bibi thinks Sharon's administration will fall in a few months, opening the chance for Bibi to run for prime minister, with a more stable Knesset.

Sharon's assessment of Bibi's view is accurate, which is too bad; Bibi, a generation younger than Arik, would be well advised to pitch in now, when Israel needs articulate hard-line voices, and make his move later. One comeback at a time. Both Labor on the left and Shas on the right would lose seats to Likud if they forced an early election; that gives Sharon's government a strange stability.

"I have friends who are Palestinians, too, among Arafat's closest people." What about the virulent attacks from Arabs about his election? "You don't hear those attacks from the close-in circle. We have been in communication for weeks."

Will there be a "new Sharon," as doves hope and realists fear? "I learned one thing over many years: to listen to people who talk to me, but not to listen to things said about me. I have my red lines. Maybe that's why I'll be able to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians, because yes is yes and no is no, though in other conditions yes might become no and no might become yes.

"They know I will guard a united and undivided Jerusalem and other areas crucial to the security of Israel. They understand they can negotiate with me but not as long as the terror doesn't stop. Excuse me, I have a call from the White House coming in. Did I tell you Tony Blair called from London, and the prime minister of Canada? Reach me at home tonight."

I did; more next time.

©2001 New York Times

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