Mon, Jan 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The new vacuum in Israeli politics will prove difficult to fill

The force of Ariel Sharon's personality convinced many Israelis to follow him, even when few knew where he was going. Israel must now grapple without him

By Simon Tisdall  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Veteran British left-wing politician Tony Benn was fond of saying that in politics it is policies, not personalities, that matter most. But like many of Benn's beliefs, this maxim owed more to wishful thinking than hard fact.

In the modern age of mass media, in countries ruled by democratically elected governments rather than dictatorships, it is often the leader who presents the most appealing, positive and trustworthy image to voters who wins the day. The nitty-gritty of his or her policies can be a secondary consideration.

Thus it may not matter very much in China whether or not Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is a charismatic and competent fellow. The Chinese people have never been invited to debate his qualities as a president. But in more open societies, subjective perceptions of an individual politician can prove decisive.

This is both a democratic strength and a weakness.

The sudden and probably permanent incapacitation through a stroke of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has again dramatically highlighted the way personality can determine and dominate policies.

LACK OF CLARITY

The reason why Sharon leaves such an enormous vacuum is not his specific ideas -- or the lack of them -- about how best to achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors but the lack of clarity about the next steps. Indeed, even his closest advisers appear not to have known what he ultimately intended to do in terms of further post-Gaza Israeli withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territory or the final status of Jerusalem. Perhaps Sharon did not, either.

This uncertainty over future policy makes the task facing his would-be successor, Ehud Olmert, both daunting and at the same time easier, because it leaves a wide scope for interpretation. But Sharon's refusal to engage with the Palestinian leadership and the divisions within the Palestinian camp and Israel itself all suggest new policy initiatives will be urgently needed.

In contrast, the most persuasive reason why Sharon appears irreplaceable is that, on a personal level, he was uniquely trusted by many Israelis who had confidence in him to do the right thing for their country. The man nicknamed the "bulldozer" was never a political pin-up. Public faith in him was based on an appreciation of his fierce patriotism, his forceful character, his war-fighting record and the grudging respect he elicited even among Israel's enemies and critics.

Perhaps only such a dominant personality could have changed tack, as he did over the past two years, and survived politically. If it had been left to a Likud-run parliamentary committee to decide whether to evacuate the settlements in Gaza, it is unlikely that last year's withdrawal would ever have taken place.

Some commentators, notably Amos Oz of the Israel's Peace Now movement, profess to see a great mystery in Sharon's apparent conversion from implacable hawk to unilateral peacemaker.

"Two years ago, a sudden change occurred," Oz said. "Sharon's rhetoric changed overnight."

But the answer to this perceived conundrum may be more prosaic. Ever the ruthless pragmatist, Sharon reached a point when he knew, like former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before him, that the violence and the killing had to stop. Like exhausted boxers in a clinch, the two sides had somehow to be prised apart. And he also knew that only he, in the wake of the second Palestinian intifada that he did much to provoke, had the political strength to enforce the requisite "painful compromises."

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