Life after Sharon
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s relationship with religious Jews has been an up and down one over the years – of late mostly down. I was at a Shalom Zachor one week ago at which the father of the newborn was an evacuee from Gush Katif, and the implacable hatred of Sharon among that part of the population remains unabated.
Nor have the five years of Sharon’s rule been easy ones for the chareidi population. If reports of the 100-day plan for Sharon’s third government – end the draft deferment for yeshiva students, eliminate all chareidi Knesset representation, and eviscerate Chinuch Atzmai – recently carried in Mishpacha are true, then Sharon’s stroke was the most timely act of salvation since Yosef Stalin died on the very day he had planned to expel all Jews from Moscow.
That, however, is a very big IF. My initial reaction to such scare stories tends to be somewhat similar to my reaction to the two-inch blue headlines, “SYRIAN TROOPS MASS ON ISRAELI BORDER,” that the Jewish Press used to run weekly.
Sharon does not share Tommy Lapid’s visceral hatred of all things Jewish, and he has never based his political campaigns on appeals to those who share Lapid’s antipathy. Though polls show Kadima attracting most former Shinui voters, its massive political appeal is based primarily on Sharon’s ability to show a third way between the Israeli Left’s illusions of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians and the Right’s dream of holding onto Greater Israel forever.
Natan Sharansky, who resigned from the Sharon government over the Gaza withdrawal, and who has been a constant critic of Sharon’s foreign policy in recent years, told me on the night following the prime minister’s massive stroke that not once in their conversations over the years has Sharon ever failed to place his views on Israel in the context of the needs of the Jewish people worldwide. Sharon has always taken pains to emphasize, “I am a Jew first, and an Israeli second.”
Even with 40-42 seats in the Knesset, Kadima would still need coalition partners in order to govern. It is hard to envision those partners coming from the Left – Labor, Meretz, or the Arab parties. And it is hard to imagine a Netanyahu-led Likud risking alienating further its traditional Sephardi supporters, already up in arms over Netanyahu’s free market economic approach, by adopting a blatantly secular agenda.
Finally Sharon, and whoever succeeds him, doubtless know that the strongest support for Israel in America comes from the Christian Right and religious Jews, and that the latter are the only Jews capable of interacting with the former. Christian evangelicals identify modern Israel with the Biblical Israel. The more implausible that identification the less Christian support Israel will receive.
NONE OF THE FOREGOING is meant to deny that a Sharon-headed Kadima Party with 40 Knesset seats would not pose grave threats. Ironically, the greatest threat might have come precisely from Sharon’s concern with the greater Jewish people. He has repeatedly said that the number one national priority is bringing another one million “Jews” to Israel, a goal to which he linked a fast-track conversion process. Mass conversion can only be at the expense of the halachic requirement of the acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos.
Sharon has never shown much patience for restraints on his freedom of action, and with three major parties – Kadima, Labor, and Likud – in control of approximately 80 seats in the Knesset, the temptation to dramatically raise the threshold for Knesset representation or, alternatively, to switch to the American system of single-member districts would likely have proven irresistible. (The latter option would at least result in a far higher level of Knesset representation than today when MKs are answerable only to the various party central committees.) Either option would sharply reduce the number of religious MKs.
And it is certainly true that Sharon attracted to the Kadima banner a host of dangerous characters, including Dr. Uriel Reichmann, one of the founder’s of Shinui, who was mooted as the next Education Minister. Reichmann could be counted on to push for the completion of a new constitution, which would inevitably give the Supreme Court an even larger voice in running national affairs. Reichmann would also act to further undermine the independence of Chinuch Atzmai.
ULTIMATELY, HOWEVER, THE EXCLUSIVE FOCUS on issues of religion and state is too narrow in evaluating the significance of the end of Ariel Sharon’s public career. Religious Jews are also residents of a state whose precarious security is threatened both by a soon to be nuclear-armed Iran and Palestinian missiles directed at major population centers and strategic sites. And it is in this area that Sharon’s steady hand will be most missed.
While many of Israel’s recent leaders showed great courage on the battlefield, none proved capable of transferring that courage to the political sphere – with the exception of Sharon. The others were run by the country rather than running it. Whatever one thinks of Sharon’s policies, it must be conceded that his opponents always blinked first or were flattened.
Even if one opposed the Gaza withdrawal, after the withdrawal passed, Israel was still more secure with Sharon running the show than Binyamin Netanyahu. It is inconceivable that Sharon did not consider the possibility of more advanced Palestinian missiles continuing to rain from Gaza, and have a decisive response planned at the appropriate time. His career leaves no doubt of his willingness to act forcefully when required, and he would have had much more credit with the Americans for a harsh response to continued Palestinian missile attacks than any other Israeli politician.
I personally doubt that Israel by itself has the capacity to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, which is spread out over more than a dozen deeply buried sites. And I do not think that Israel should be the United States’ shikyingel to do so, given that the Iranian counterattack might well cost thousands of Jewish lives. But if that decision had to be made, I, for one, would rather have Ariel Sharon making it than any of the group of pygmies now poised to succeed him.
Strong men are dangerous, but Israel may still have much cause to miss Ariel Sharon.
Published in Mishpacha, January 11, 2006