Sharon Weighs His Options: All Tough

Ariel Sharon has been weighing the options for his government and "disengagement plan" since his humiliating defeat at last week’s Likud Party convention, but none of the alternatives looks particularly good.

Formally, the convention merely voted against continuing coalition talks with the dovish Labor Party. But the subtext of the vote was clear: Hawkish party members are intent on preventing the Israeli prime minister from going ahead with his plan to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank next year.

In the wake of the vote, Sharon retired to his farm to consider his next move. There are no easy options.

Sharon could:

  • Stumble on with the minority government he now has, but that would make carrying out the disengagement plan virtually impossible.
  • Continue coalition negotiations with Labor in defiance of the Likud convention decision, but that almost certainly would draw fierce opposition in both parties.
  • Try to build a stable coalition with the fiercely secular Shinui Party and the ultra-Orthodox parties, a daunting task.
  • Bring in the ultra-Orthodox and the far right instead of Shinui or Labor, which likely would be the final blow to Sharon’s disengagement plan.

If there’s no simple route to beef up his shaky coalition, precipitating early elections won’t be easy for Sharon either. Given the current turmoil in Likud, Sharon wouldn’t be sure of winning the party nomination for prime minister.

If he splits the party to run at the head of a centrist alliance composed of Likud breakaways, Labor and Shinui — a realignment so profound that pundits have labeled it the "big bang" of Israeli politics — Sharon would be embarking on a political adventure, the results of which no one can foresee.

Should Sharon decide to persist with his minority government, he first would have to shore up his position in his own party. That would entail making deals with Likud strongmen like Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. For a proud man like Sharon, that would be the ultimate humiliation — not to mention the fact that neither prospective ally is enamored of the disengagement plan.

Shalom has said he will help Sharon push the plan through, but the trade-off for his support would probably be further modification of the plan and vacillation.

Moreover, if the government votes next March, as scheduled, to begin evacuating settlers from Gaza, the four National Religious Party members who still support Sharon will bolt, leaving the prime minister with a coalition of only 54 in the 120-member Knesset, and an opposition threatening to topple him at any moment over a host of issues.

Sharon’s preferred government remains a national unity coalition with Labor. The first thing he did after retiring to his farm was to send a message to Labor leader Shimon Peres, saying that he wanted to continue coalition talks, the Likud vote notwithstanding.

The next day, Peres convened a news conference to announce that he was no longer interested, that instead he would press for early elections and that he would be Labor’s candidate for prime minister.

The idea was to soften up Sharon’s Likud opponents who don’t want elections any time soon, but Peres may have overplayed his hand: His announcement that he would run as Labor’s candidate for prime minister sparked a minirebellion in his own party.

About a dozen Labor legislators, led by Matan Vilnai and Binyamin Ben Eliezer, came out against any further talks with Likud and against Peres as the party’s automatic choice for prime minister.

They demanded that the coalition negotiating team change its function and start preparing the party for new elections. They also insisted that a date be set soon for primaries to elect Labor’s candidate for prime minister.

Peres countered by dismissing the rebellion as a tempest in a teacup. More significantly, he changed his tack on national unity: The coalition negotiations with the Likud, he said, were almost wrapped up, with far-reaching agreements already achieved on key political and economic issues.

Despite what he had said at his earlier news conference, Peres left no doubt that he intended to resume coalition talks with Sharon. But will Sharon and Peres, the grand old men of Israeli politics, with all their proven political skills, be able to outmaneuver the rebels in their respective parties?

If not, Sharon could try for a coalition with Shinui and the ultra-Orthodox. But Shinui is insisting that the ultra-Orthodox agree to a form of civil marriage and a military draft of yeshiva students, demands they reject out of hand.

Instead of Shinui, Sharon could bring back the far-right National Union bloc and the two dissenting National Religious Party legislators, building a solid 69-member coalition. But that would mean abandoning disengagement altogether, sparking a potential showdown with the next U.S. administration and the rest of the international community for breaking Israel’s much-touted promise to withdraw.

The only way out for Sharon, political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma’ariv newspaper, is for him to "rock the boat." One way of doing this would be to go to new elections.

But, as Caspit wrote, Sharon has become a leader without a party — and, in an election situation, he might well face a strong leadership challenge.

To head this off, the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset speaker, is proposing that Sharon and Netanyahu agree in advance on a leadership rotation: That Sharon be prime minister for two years after the next election and then make way for Netanyahu.

An even more radical solution for Sharon would be to trigger the "big bang" and form a centrist electoral alliance incorporating his wing of the Likud, Labor and Shinui, running together on a pro-disengagement ticket.

Polls show such an alignment would win about 60 Knesset seats. That would give a new Sharon-led government the political base for disengagement and more. But Israeli pundits doubt that the three aging party leaders — Sharon, Peres and Shinui’s Yosef "Tommy" Lapid — would have the daring and stamina to pull together their disparate parties.

Leading analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Achronot newspaper: "This plan did not have much chance to start off with. Now that the three old men are battered and beaten, the chances are even smaller."

Taken together, these factors don’t augur well for the disengagement plan or for Israel’s international standing. Most Israelis want to see disengagement proceed. The question is, can the unwieldy Israeli political system allow any government a political base solid enough to carry it out?


An Open Letter to Avraham Burg

On Sept. 26, the Journal published an opinion piece by MK Avraham Burg critical of Israel’s current government (“Leaders Stay Silent as Israel Collapses.”) The following is a reply to Burg. To see Burg’s letter, go to

Dear Avrum,

I’ve known you — within our long-time family friendship — for many years. I never commented on any of your political statements when you gave them to Israeli newspapers.

However, your article “A Failed Israeli Society is Collapsing” is especially disappointing because it was not only published in Israel, but also abroad in the “International Herald Tribune,” “Le Monde” (Paris) and “Suddeutsche Zeitung” (Munich). Under these circumstances I cannot restrain myself from reacting to it.

I must protest against your level of argumentation and the style of your essay. Your way of presenting issues is irresponsible, undemocratic and lacks basic honesty. It ignores all the great values that are the basis of the Jewish State up to this day.

In very general accusations — which are characteristic of the whole article — you say that the Israeli nation (!) today rests on a “scaffolding of corruption.” No word about Israel being a state with a most developed judicial system and courts that are open to all parts of Israeli society (Arabs included) in order to supervise justice in the State of Israel and to fight corruption in all its manifestations — a tiny state surrounded by totalitarian governments that are not bound by the rule of law. No word about the vast majority dedicated to Israel without any personal corruption whatsoever. No word about the tremendous job done in Israel with the huge emigration from Russia and Ethiopia. No word about the thousands of volunteers fulfilling a wonderful task for all underprivileged people — from handicapped children to helpless aged persons. No word about the free press of Israel, which detects openly any irregularities within the government and its branches. No word about the unlimited devotion to Israel’s security, even by regular citizens who endanger their lives in order to minimize the destruction done by terror acts.

You write that settlements are “run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers.”

The settlements have been built since 1967 with the help of the Israeli government (Labor and Likud alike) and even their political opponents know that most of the settlers are great idealists. Far from being corrupt and amoral, they are loyal citizens. It is one thing to advocate removal of settlements, and another to demonize the settlers in such an unjust way.

How can you ignore the Jewish historic approach in your analysis of events? One example: Tens of thousands of Arabs worked for many, many years in Israel. Their entry to Israel started to be made difficult only after terrorists were smuggled in with the workers. To speak about the Palestinian difficulties with the roadblocks without mentioning the reasons that brought them about is morally questionable.

What is even worse: You invent the lie that Israel has “ceased to care about the children of Palestinians.” You describe all of Israel as an inhuman entity and cause with this statement irreparable damage to Israel’s moral image. As you surely know, the truth is the opposite: Despite the Palestinian children being educated to become genocide murderers and despite their being abused as shields for terrorists, Israel does whatever possible to avoid unnecessary damage to the lives of Palestinian children. Examples: The deaths of 23 soldiers in Jenin — who were sacrificed in order to avoid a massive attack on the civilian population. Another recent example: Israel could have killed the main heads of the Hamas movement in Gaza, but refrained from using a stronger bomb in order not to endanger too many civilians. I don’t know any other nation in the world that would act with such moral considerations even in their fight against frightfully inhuman terrorists.

“We must remove all the settlements — all of them” — what an odd, unreflective statement! If Israel has no rights in the disputed territories gained through the ’67 war, how will you react to the request of the Palestinian prime minister that Israel has to go back to the 1948 borders and quit the “occupied territories” of the Independence War? And how will you morally reject the PLO argument, taught in the Palestinian schoolbooks, that all of Israel is “occupied” territories?

Can it be historically justified that Israel leaves Hebron, Gush Etzion or even great parts of Jerusalem, so that a future Palestinian state becomes “judenrein” while now, in Israel, there live more than a million Arabs with political rights?

Never in your article do you mention “peace” (perhaps you don’t believe in the possibility of a peace treaty after the Barak experience), but you still expect — in a most irresponsible way — that Israel go back to the “Auschwitz” borders of ’67, even without a permanent peace process.

Your appeal to “Israel’s friends abroad, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, presidents and prime ministers” to influence the road Israel is going on is a clear undermining of Israel’s democracy. Now that you and your party are a minority, you appeal to political forces outside Israel to interfere in Israel’s affairs. Who would believe that this undemocratic view is expressed in a call from a man who was speaker of the Israeli parliament?

“The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.” The majority of Israel would like to assist the Arabs to fulfill these needs. But as long as their dream is “to kill Jews wherever you find them,” Israel cannot be expected to assist them in making this dream reality.

It is truly unbelievable that a man of your position should have no hesitation, as a Jew and as a Zionist, to weaken the struggle of the Jewish People in Israel with an article full of generalizations, platitudes and baseless accusations, not mentioning with one word the high level of Jewish values and humane behavior kept alive in the State of Israel, despite the brutality used by its neighbors during all the years of its existence.

An old Jewish saying states that one of the greatest sins is to humiliate another human being in public. It is your right (and perhaps even your duty) to publicize your political views, but I am afraid that with your irresponsible article in significant publications worldwide, you transgressed this basic rule by humiliating the People of Israel in a most unqualified, ugly manner.

Arthur Cohn is a Swiss-based film producer whose productions include “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” “Central Station” and “One Day in September.”

No Vacancy

Last week, before the premiere of my new show “While You Were Out,” I got my first big national magazine review.

I wasn’t expecting it. I had just had a tooth pulled and my mom was in town for the day to take care of me. I was just minding my own business, sprawled on the couch, taking painkillers like Pez, flipping through a magazine. There it was: my name with the two-word description, “incessantly vacant.” Incessantly vacant.

Me? Vacant? I got up, gripping the folded-over magazine, and commenced one of those slurry, self-important monologues not uncommon to guys hanging out in front of a halfway house with no teeth (fitting, since I was down a tooth myself).

“I’m a lot of things, Mom, but vacant? I didn’t put down ‘The Bell Jar’ until the end of junior high. I won first and second place in a poetry contest when I was 9 — and both poems were about the Holocaust! Vacant! There’s no vacancy here!”

It wasn’t clear whether this was a review of the host I replaced or of me, but it didn’t matter. As I must have said 30 times in four minutes, pacing and stumbling around with that stupid magazine in my sweaty grip, “You can’t un-ring a bell.”

What I felt at that moment was so painful, it was hard to believe I was on painkillers. Sure, I thought, no one reads this crap, other than all of my peers. It was a humiliating sucker punch. It was picking teams and I was last, right after the kid with an inhaler in his pocket. It was what we humans live to avoid — being shamed in a public forum.

I sat down, looked at my mom, and realized I should do her proud by acting with grace and dignity. Instead, I got on the Internet and got the journalist’s home phone number in Staten Island, N.Y. He was going to get a piece of my drug-altered mind. I wrote his number on a scrap of paper and my mom gently suggested I wait 24 hours before making the decision to call. If you shouldn’t operate a car on Vicodin, you probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel of your career.

The longer I thought about it, two things became clear. The first was that, once and for all, I would have to accept the idea that not everyone was going to like me. I really hate that. But if I was visiting a mental hospital and a patient yelled, “You’re Marie Osmond,” would I start singing “I’m a Little Bit Country”? No. I don’t agree with that narrator. Do I honestly think I’m vacant? I don’t, and my opinion of myself has to matter more than some guy in Staten Island who doesn’t even know me.

The bigger lesson is that most painful things in life are eventually funny. My friend said to me, “At least you’re consistent. He could have called you ‘periodically vacant.'” Within two days, the review was becoming a funny anecdote, and that’s no small thing. That’s everything.

In college, I had this blond-haired, blue-blooded boyfriend from Massachusetts. I went to stay with his family for Thanksgiving and I was so in love and so nervous that I actually wet the bed. Yes, wet the bed. It traumatized me so much I’m pretty sure it actually changed my DNA. Five years later, I wrote a show about it. People loved that story. They could relate.

I finally understand the trick. If you can compress the amount of time from shameful incident to funny story, you’re golden.

In the recent flap about the movie “Barbershop,” Jesse Jackson took offense at comments in the movie about several black icons. “You would not make Golda Meir the butt of a joke — it’s sacred territory,” he said. Once again, Jesse is wrong about us Jews. I swear I’ve looked at myself with a severe hair-do and no makeup and sighed, “Ugh, I look like Golda Meir.”

Humor is healing and we’ve always needed it. My dad made a joke at my grandfather’s funeral. We joked when my aunt killed herself. We still joke about that, not out of disrespect but out of necessity. Taking tragedy and death and humiliation seriously won’t stop them, so it seems the only course of action is to feel, process, grieve and, finally, lighten up if you can.

I never called that writer in Staten Island. I did call to cancel my subscription to the magazine (I may not be able to chew solid food, but I do have my pride). The phone operator asked, “Why are you canceling? I have to put a code in the computer.”

“Well, I try to understand your magazine, but I’m too … vacant.”