There are two types of political leaders in democratic systems of government: those whose political power grows in tandem with that of their party and political base, and those whose political power grows on the back of their party and political base. US president Ronald Reagan was probably the most recent archetype of the first type of political leader. Former president Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are textbook cases of the latter type of political leader.
Reagan's political maneuverings over the years were led by what he referred to as his 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt speak no ill of a fellow Republican." For Reagan, the strengthening of the Republican Party and the conservative camp in the US was an end in itself as well as a means towards his own political success. During his two terms in the White House, Reagan transformed American policy and politics at home and abroad and had a lasting impact on the way Americans perceived their nation. When he left office, the conservative-Republican base had become the majority camp in American politics and society. More importantly, American strength, wealth and self-assurance at home and abroad grew in concert with Reagan's political power.
Understanding that his own liberal Democratic base was the minority in the US, Clinton based his political strategy on what his former political adviser Dick Morris referred to as "triangulation." Clinton was not guided by a core principle of loyalty to party and to his political base, but by a desire to amalgamate his personal power. Clinton rallied his base by emphasizing his personal affability and by offering patronage positions and perks. He rallied conservative swing voters by implementing conservative economic, social and international policies. When Clinton left office, his political camp not only remained a minority, it was as bereft of new ideas as it had been when he entered office. While Clinton remained personally popular throughout his tenure, he left no enduring or transformational legacy on America. Indeed, if anything, Clinton's legacy is the implementation of Reagan's vision for American society.
The major difference between Sharon and Clinton is that Sharon abandoned the policies of his own rightist Likud political base in favor of those of the radical Left despite the fact that his political base constitutes the majority of Israelis. Aside from this important distinction, Sharon and Clinton's political machinations have been notably similar.
Sharon, like Clinton, has been consistent in making the consolidation and extension of his political power his singular goal as Israel's leader. This self-obsession is in many ways his most valuable political asset. It enables him to adopt policies and take steps that no politician who is concerned primarily with substantive matters like the welfare of the nation or even the political fortunes of his political party or political base would ever consider adopting. The direct and perverse result of Sharon's egocentric maneuverings is that while his position and popularity – internationally and in Israel – have never been stronger, the State of Israel has never been weaker or more derided in the international community and in the Middle East.
While Reagan transformed American politics by inspiring Americans themselves to take risks and rise to the many challenges they faced as individuals and as a country in the 1980s, Sharon has entrenched his own power by lulling Israelis into a sense of powerlessness and indifference. This he has done in two ways. First, Sharon has cultivated a persona that puts him above and at a distance from the regular Israeli "masses." In his rare public statements, Sharon has never encouraged Israelis to rise to the challenges they face. He speaks mostly of himself and his self-perceived greatness while promising his people "quiet" and "stability" – things they can expect to receive by simply keeping their heads down.
In his press conference on Sunday evening when he announced he was abandoning the Likud, for instance, Sharon used the word "stability" four times and "quiet" twice in a 10-minute address. Sharon spent the first three minutes of the speech talking about his past and the rest of the speech was devoted to castigating the Likud for daring to challenge his judgment.
Indeed the second anchor of Sharon's political power has been his systematic demonization of his party members and of his party's political support base. Sharon maintained his offensive against his voters and party by at once buying off enough Likud members with jobs and perks to secure their votes for his leftist policies and by turning every policy debate regarding the merits of his radical leftist policies into a referendum on his personal leadership. This dual strategy has worked to simultaneously corrupt the decision-making processes in the Likud and the Knesset and to cause a previously unified Likud and rightist political camp to become deeply divided and embittered.
Like Clinton, Sharon's self-obsession has been his most important political asset. Unburdened by the national interest, Sharon is unfettered in his pursuit of power by mere "inconveniences" like national security and his party's interests. This has provided him with unprecedented flexibility in forging political alliances and adopting policies that no leader who is fettered by his party ties and the national interest would dare enter into.
But even as Sharon's egomania has served him, it has also been the root of every political failure he has experienced in recent years. In April and May 2004, Sharon's self-adulation led him to believe that his party members would support his adoption of the radical Left's withdrawal and expulsion plan from Gaza and northern Samaria. He lost the Likud referendum on the issue – a poll which he called for – by more than 20 points. Equally telling, ahead of this month's Labor primaries, Sharon operated under the assumption that Shimon Peres would win the race. This assumption was based not on what Labor voters themselves were saying but on the fact that Peres supported Sharon. As well, when Sharon speaks of his victory in the 2003 elections, it never seems to occur to him that no one actually voted for him – they voted for Likud. Today, Sharon's belief in his own infallibility has led him to bolt his own party and believe that he will win elections in a new party that lacks a party machinery of any kind including offices and activists.
Aside from his own delusions of grandeur, two other calculations no doubt guided Sharon in his decision to leave Likud. First, given that his popularity is built on his evisceration and demonization of his party and party members, it is far from clear that Sharon would have won a primary race for Likud leadership. Second, the Likud will not support Sharon in his hypothetical next term if he moves to continue his policy of unilateral land giveaways to Palestinian terrorists in Judea and Samaria along the Gaza blueprint.
The fact that Likud's policies retain the support of the majority of Israelis is exposed by Sharon's need today to lie about his diplomatic plans. Sharon's campaign is based upon his pledge that he will enact no further unilateral withdrawals in Judea and Samaria. And yet, his own party members like former Labor MK Haim Ramon openly indicate that Sharon is lying and will move to carry out such withdrawals if he is elected. Ramon said in a TV interview Wednesday that Sharon will unilaterally withdraw to final borders in Judea and Samaria if Palestinian terror continues.
Against Sharon, it is clear that a strategy for victory in the upcoming elections for Likud revolves around three things. First, the Likud must elect Binyamin Netanyahu to replace Sharon as its leader. Only Netanyahu can offer a coherent alternative to Sharon while s
till being perceived by the public as more moderate than the right-wing parties that run to the side of Likud. That is, Netanyahu is the only candidate that the public perceives as representing what Likud as a party and political movement stands for.
Second, the Likud must base its strategy for the future on the widest possible political platform. That platform should contain no more than a few principles. These principles must contain a pledge not to transfer any territory to the Palestinians unless such a transfer of territory is to be enacted as part of a diplomatic agreement with a Palestinian interlocutor who has already taken concrete and continuous steps to democratize Palestinian society and rout out terrorists and terrorism. Aside from this, the Likud must commit itself to bringing any future agreement with the Palestinians or any other Arab society that involves the transfer of control over any amount of territory to the nation for approval in a national referendum.
Finally, and most importantly, the Likud must understand that Sharon has shaped Israel's political game in a manner that makes his rivalry with Likud a zero-sum game. In the months ahead of the implementation of Sharon's withdrawal and expulsion plan, Likud members clung to the belief that while Sharon may have taken every measure to decimate the Likud's political supporters, coalition partners and party members who challenged his policies, he would never dare to challenge Likud's political position as the ruling party in Israel. Today it is clear how wrong they were. The campaign against Sharon must be based on two issues: his personal corruption and his political perfidy.
In 2003, Sharon, who was then the subject of two criminal probes, was able to neutralize the issue of corruption mainly because the legal elites overplayed their hand, making the public believe Sharon's protestations that he was being victimized. Today such arguments cannot succeed. Today Sharon runs for reelection when at his side stands his son, MK Omri Sharon – a convicted felon. Omri now awaits sentencing for his conviction this month on charges of perjury and fraud that could land him in jail for several years. Omri committed all of his crimes as his father's campaign manager in 1999 and 2001. Today Omri is a candidate for the Knesset in his father's new party and remains Sharon's closest political adviser. Sharon himself remains the focus of the Cyril Kern-Martin Schlaf corruption probe.
In addition to his son's criminality and criminal allegations against Sharon himself, Sharon has proven himself to be one of the most deceitful political leaders Israel has ever had. His current pledge not to enact further unilateral withdrawals and expulsions is nothing less than a new example of his contempt for voters. There can be no doubt that he is lying today just as he lied three years ago when he ran on a platform of rejecting unilateral withdrawals and expulsions from Gaza.
The coming elections will be a defining moment in Israel's political history. Not only will they determine whether Israelis wish to base their national strategy on appeasement and retreat or national resolve and responsibility. Not only will they determine whether Israelis prefer socialist statism and economic recession or economic freedom, competition and growth. They will also determine whether Israeli voters are willing to accept the distinction between a leader who wins by making them better off, and one who wins at their expense.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.