The Writing on the Wall, Jan 2001

Saving a divine interference (a viable contingency in the Holy Land) Ariel Sharon is going to form the new Israeli government as of February 7, a day after the special elections to the post of Prime Minister. Two major and immensely believeable polls indicated a total and potentially devastating defeat for the incumbent PM, Ehud Barak on January 5. Yediot Aharonot’s Dachaf pollsters, predicted 50 percent to Sharon, 32 percent to Barak and 18 percent to the don’t knows. Maariv portrayed an equally ominous picture: Sharon 50 percent, Barak 22 percent and further 28 percent to the undecided. Maariv is argueably more sophisticated than Yediot, hence the relative strength of the bleeding hearts, who still contemplate a change of mind, perhaps an absolution to Barak due to his only reasonable quality: his name is not Sharon. But the undecided are not in the position to save Barak’s neck. The die is cast, and Barak is going to be purged from the labour party’s leadership, as soon as the results are officially declared. Barak’s predicament continued on January 7, when the commercial TV announced the verdict of their poll: the PM trailed behind Sharon. 21 to 51 percent respectively. Even the Labour leaders at the studio, Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami, failed to conceal their dismay.

But are the Labour senior politicians going to wait that long? It is far from being certain. Barak could disappear from the poitical scene even before the elections, and this is indeed the talk of the town during the second week of January. According to the law, Labour can replace their official candidate until 96 hours before the polling day. The pressure to swap Barak with Shimon Peres (who beat Sharon in the polls by 49% to 43%!) is mounting daily, and the firm denials that such scenario is possible, let alone likely, only enhance the rumour mongering. Labour politicians are at least as ruthless as the Conservative hacks that ousted Margaret Thatcher in 1990

Barak, in his customary detached manner, continues to wear the supercillious expression on his blank face, but to no avail. On January 8 he informed the media that he had no intention to withdraw from the race, even if he was left “with four backers”. This was received by the political jokers with the rather obvious remark, that Barak would have to work very hard to secure at least those four votes.  But the pressure on Barak is relentless. Even his former ally in the mass circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, Sever Plotzker, urged him to face the facts on January 8.  Some Israeli Arab politicians indicated on the same day, that they would recommend to their constituency to vote for Peres, but were not in a position to promote the Barak ticket. Therefore, Barak has lost all the sectors that had brought him to power in May 1999: the Arabs, The Russian immigrants and the hardcore Israeli left.

Stangely enough, considering the nature of his opponent, Barak’s hold on veteran Israelis of Ashkenazi origin and their Israeli-born offsprings has also been seriously eroded.    Many voters have all but forgot the major part that Sharon played in the 1982 extremely unpopular invasion of Lebanon. And his role in provoking the recent riots by his infamous pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Temple-Mount can hardly be exploited by the Barak camp, since all Labour politicians including Barak himself have already absolved him fron any responsibility for his malignant provocation.

Ironically, the head of Barak’s elections headquarters, Eli Goldschmidt MK, is a notorious admirer of Sharon, and a consistent supporter of a Labour-Likud government. He has already apologised twice to Sharon for “excessive” remarks and propaganda against the Likud leader, portraying him as the butcher of Sabra and Shatileh and the instigator of the recent intifada. Goldschmidt is very well aware of the fact that his Labour party backed the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and even voted for the (Menachem) begin government in a no-confidence motion tabled by the Communists. Most of the anti-Sharon hate campaign was published in Arabic, for the benefit of the crucial Arab electorate. But the polls are unanimous in predicting that most Arabs will either abstain or insert blank slips into the ballot boxes.

An effective exploitation of the 28 September provocative visit by Sharon to the Temple-mount is proving to be even more complicated.  The right-wing daily in English, the Jerusalem Post, reported on 5 January, that the Barak government had officially absolved Sharon of any responsibility for the troubles, in a communication to the Mitchell Fact-Finding Committee. Throughout the crisis several Labour leaders have reaffirmed that “Jews have legitimate rights” to pay such visits to the holy places in Jerusalen and refused to condemn Sharon. The clumsy attempt to raise the issue now is received by most Israelis as yet another proof of Labour’s perfidy.

The confusion in the international arena contributes to Likud’s soaring morale. The American role is diminishing daily, as Bill Clinton’s tenure is approaching its termination on 20 January. Israel’s reply to the US President is strewn with reservations about his proposals (which had been submitted on the basis of take-it-or leave it). The Barak government expressed an implied disagreement with Clinton on the territorial issue, on Jerusalem’s holy sites and on the refugees. So, a viable agreement under the friendliest President ever is impossibility for Israel, and as a direct result Barak has no ammunition whatsoever to use in the elections.

Ariel Sharon himself keeps a very low profile, and blesses his lucky star for fighting the elections against such hapless an opponent. “If the centre-half of our rival team scores ten own goals in one game, why should we bother to counter-attack?” asked Rubi Rivlin, a senior Likud MK.

Rivlin, a seasoned Jerusalem-based politician and a former manager of the Likud affiliated local football team, Beitar, masterminds Sharon’s campaign very efficeintly and skilfully. The basic premise is, that the entire secular right, the religious Zionist and the orthodox are in Sharon’s pockets, and therefore the main objective is not to alienate the crucial centre and not to annoy the leftists and the Arabs, lest they decide to vote for Barak after all. This has been accomplished very successfully. On January 5 Sharon succeeded in saying nothing, during his long appearance on the state TV.  His interviewers failed to squeeze from him even a token answer on the crucial question, whether he would contemplate a withdrawal even from “remote and isolated settlements”.  On the same day he reiterated that Barak would ve invited to be a minister of defence in his government and emphasised in his shrill voice: “Barak would serve under me and would carry out my policies.

The situation is becoming more and more bizzare. Ben-Ami addressed the nation on January 7 stressing the so-called radical peace policies and massive concessions by his government, rebuffing the left and its Israeli Arab allies for their intention to snub Barak and cast a blank vote. On the otherhand, Ben-Ami himself is accused by civil right organisations in Israel of responsibility for the police brutality in October, resulting in the wanton killings of 13 Israeli citizens, who happened to be Arabs. Ben-Ami is currently the most vociferous ally of Barak and a sworn enemy of Peres. His loyalty is not being reciprocated. Barak is courting Peres publicly, appearing with him in embarrassing joint TV interviews, and in this way only underscoring his own weakness.

Barak’s final episode, being drugged out by the people kicking and screaning, is undignified. It is indeed possible, that if his defeat in the elections is utterly humiliating, Sharon will not even offer him the defence portfolio. True enough, Sharon will need some respectable Labour defector (or an official represenative in a national unity cabinet) in his government, to allay the fears abroad stemming from his justified reputation as a warmonger. But the ideal figure for that purpose is not necessarily Barak, but Peres as foreign minister under Sharon. Impossible? Outrageous? On the contrary, this is the most likely prediction for mid-February 2001.

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