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Erlanger: ‘The Sharon Era Is Over’ in Israel, With Everything ‘Up In Air’

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Steven Erlanger, Correspondent, New York Times
January 5, 2006

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Steven Erlanger, the chief Jerusalem correspondent for the New York Times, says that even if Ariel Sharon survives his latest stroke, his political career has ended. "For realistic political reasons, as well as human ones, the Sharon era is over," Erlanger says. What is crucial is which political grouping will emerge victorious in the March Knesset elections. Erlanger believes that Sharon's new party, Kadima, now headed by the uncharismatic Ehud Olmert, still has a chance of garnering the most votes in the parliament and heading a coalition with the Labor Party and the Shas Party.

But, Erlanger says, Kadima must still prove itself as a viable centrist party. On the Palestinian side, he says, there is chaos and uncertainty on whether the Palestinian legislative elections set for later this month will in fact take place, although he thinks they will.

As for Sharon, Erlanger says: "Many people had many reasons not to like Sharon, but they'd come to trust him and they began calling him Saba Sharon, or Grandfather Sharon. This was not always done affectionately, but there is a sense now that a big part of Israel's history and a big part of its future is lying incapacitated and close to death in the hospital and everything seems up in the air."

Erlanger was interviewed from Jerusalem by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 5, 2006.

What's the general mood in Israel since Ariel Sharon's latest, more serious stroke and his operation?

Well, there's a lot of nervousness, a sense of insecurity. Many people had many reasons not to like Sharon, but they'd come to trust him and they began calling him Saba Sharon, or Grandfather Sharon. This was not always done affectionately, but there is a sense now that a big part of Israel's history and a big part of its future is lying incapacitated and close to death in the hospital and everything seems up in the air.

And everyone agrees, I suppose, that no matter what, his political days are probably over?

Yes. No one actually knows for sure, but with this kind of stroke, it would be considered miraculous for him to pop right out of bed. Most people think he's likely to have a much worse fate over time even if he lives. And even if he did pop out of bed, I think politically no one would be willing to say, "Oh no, this won't happen a third time." So for realistic political reasons, as well as human ones, the Sharon era is over.

Right, now, before his latest medical problems, the polls showed his newly organized Kadima Party as the favorite to win the most seats in the Knesset elections scheduled for March. Where does that party stand now?

Well, they are somewhat up in the air. Ehud Olmert was named acting prime minister because he was the vice premier and he'd gone over to Kadima with Sharon. And it's likely he will end up running the party. It would be remarkable if the acting prime minister wasn't named head of this new party. And they have in this party a group of pretty experienced people from Likud but no one with the stature or charisma of Sharon. It's a party that was built around Sharon. It was also built around a couple of policy ideas, but we have to see whether the ideas will outlast the founder of the party. Kadima was on track in the last poll before the stroke to get between forty and forty-two seats out of the 120 seats in the parliament or Knesset. That is more than Likud under Sharon got in 2003.

So forty's a big deal. And everyone just assumed—because the polls made it clear—that Kadima under Sharon would be by far the largest party and would probably go into a coalition with Labor—under its new and untested union leader, Amir Peretz—and probably would add Shas, a religious party. But now it's not clear. Kadima needs to prove itself. First of all, it needs to organize itself because Sharon was the one who was even going to pick who would be on the party list, and he hadn't gotten around to doing that. Some people were criticizing the stink of big-man politics in Israel. It seemed like Latin American politics to many under former generals before democracy ruled.

Even the name of Kadima, which means Forward, had a little odor of fascism about it to some people. But now Kadima has to organize itself and build up some party institutions and figure out what their party lists will be like, and they have a little less than three months to show that they know what they're doing.

But the universe now seems paler, I think, because Benyamin Netanyahu is the head of a rump Likud. He was elected prime minister in 1996, but many Israelis think he was a failure in that role. And he was a very good finance minister under Sharon, many people believe. It will be difficult for him to win the election with his rump Likud party, even though he has a reputation for caring about security.

And the Labor party looks kind of lost. Labor was fine if it was going to be in a coalition with Sharon leading the government because Sharon was the very experienced security person. Amir Peretz, who recently was elected the head of the Labor Party, has a social-welfare agenda. He has no real security experience, and most people think he isn't ready to be prime minister.

Well, if Peretz brought into his leadership someone like Ehud Barak, a former senior general and prime minister, would that help him any?

It could. Labor may still end in the government if Kadima squeaks through with the largest number of seats. I mean, nobody really knows. But one thing for sure is even Sharon would have needed a coalition, and certainly without Sharon, the formation of a coalition will likely be messier than even the traditional Israeli coalitions of the past with the horse-trading and all of that. And the big question to me is whether this great dream of every Israeli reformer—a big centrist party that they were hoping Kadima would become under Sharon—is going to hold together or not. Centrists will argue whether Israel's in a state of de-alignment, from old parties, or whether it's in a state of realignment. This will be a kind of test of that question.

Does it matter where the former Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, who joined the Kadima party under Sharon, goes? Will he stay with Kadima or go back to Labor?

Well, it does matter. Not that he's going to run the country. But he can bring Labor voters to Kadima, which is what he was going to do for Sharon, and help convince Labor voters who care about security that Kadima could be a centrist party and wasn't really just another Likud in fancier makeup. And so Peres actually is important for the floating Labor voter who in a time of uncertainty might want to go home to Labor, the way some floating Likud voters without Sharon in Kadima are likely to go home to Likud.

So I do think Peres is important. The question is whether he can understand that, at eighty-two years old, he has a statesman role and could be a great No. 2 or No. 3 and keeps his own narcissism in check.

Let's talk a minute about the Palestinian situation. The Palestinians seem from the outside to be totally screwed up right now, but is that an exaggeration?

Well, no, I'm sorry to say it is not an exaggeration. You know there's politics going on there, too. So some of the chaos that we see is political in that it's organized chaos, it's aimed to try to get the January 25 legislative elections postponed. If the situation's chaotic enough, the theory goes, then you can't hold these elections. So a lot of the trouble's being made by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which are affiliated with Fatah [the dominant Palestinian political party headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen].

The trouble's inside Fatah. Fatah's split into at least three parts, you know. Palestinians—quite separately from the Israeli occupation, which is not an inconsiderable factor in their difficulties—are really upset that President Mahmoud Abbas has not delivered the law and order that they wanted, particularly in Gaza. I think the voters are going to punish Fatah if they get a chance.

So it is very messy and it adds more difficulty to the sense of insecurity that Israelis feel with Sharon so sick because, you know, whatever you thought of Sharon, his driving passion was the security of the state of Israel, even though he kept changing his mind about how security was supposed to be achieved. And right now, the Palestinian Authority seems to be disintegrating in certain ways and it seems that it may become a failed state before it even becomes a state. Now that may sound dire, but people worry about it.

Well, do you think there'll be second-guessing in Israel on the evacuation from Gaza now that Sharon's not around to do the follow-up?

Well, there always has been second-guessing but not by the majority of Israelis. Mostly the second-guessing has been for political reasons because Netanyahu, after all, quit Sharon's cabinet over this issue and in a way Sharon quit Likud over Likud's basic opposition to the Gaza withdrawal. And Bibi [Netanyahu] keeps arguing that Israel is less secure now because Israel has left Gaza then it was before.

But Olmert and others around Sharon have always argued that it makes no difference, that in fact Israel's security is enhanced, its reputation in the world is enhanced, that it was always impossible for nine thousand Israeli settlers to rule over 1.3 million Palestinians and that they were more of a security cost than a security benefit. I think most Israelis are just glad it's over and that the orange banners have disappeared. Most people assume there will be something else to come in the West Bank. But again, nobody knew what was in Sharon's mind. I'm not sure he knew exactly what he was going to do, either, but people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, which I don't think they're going to do so easily with someone else.

Talk a bit about Olmert for those readers who don't even know him. I remember him as a longtime mayor of Jerusalem, right?

Yes, yes, absolutely. I remember meeting him in 1983, my first trip here. He was a Likud politician then and he was considered a bright, rising star of the kind who was a great deputy but probably was never going to be a leader. He's very smart, he's very experienced, he has foreign policy experience, he speaks other languages, he's kind of nice-looking, he's articulate. He pushed Sharon, to some degree, to the center. He had come to some conclusions about how Israel had to change its policy toward the Palestinians quite early for a Likud person. People think he's a little arrogant, not very charismatic, but he has three months or so to try to show that he can run things.

Does the United States, you think, have a favorite out of who's left?

Quite honestly, I don't know. I think they have been as lost as everybody else. I mean, the Bush administration was pushing basically a "let's try to help Abu Mazen agenda," you know, and had clearly backed Sharon with every possible way a foreign government can back another foreign politician, so there was no doubt there. But whether that extends to the rest of his party I don't know and I think the United States is probably sitting around today deciding what exactly they want to concentrate on. There's still an agenda that is a small one but a real one about access to Gaza and the right of Palestinians to move out of Gaza and move goods and themselves in and out of Gaza.

That Gaza border agreement announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has never really been implemented, has it?

They've done pretty well on the goods crossing points of Karni, which is where most of the produce goes in and out. That's gone pretty well. That's the main goods crossing point between Gaza and Israel. And Erez is the main crossing point for people between Gaza and Israel. And Rafah is the Egypt-Gaza crossing point. And they've got Rafah open. But they failed to get a promised bus convoy between Gaza and the West Bank for Palestinians. The Israelis, even under Sharon, decided it was too politically risky to allow it. Basically, the Americans are looking for deliverables for Abu Mazen so he could say to his people, "See, back Fatah. Don't back Hamas." And so maybe the Americans also might be thinking about whether they now think having these Palestinian elections are a good idea are not.

I see. Well, if they don't have the elections, will Hamas go crazy or not?

I think they will kind of go crazy, and I think maybe Abbas would have to resign. It becomes a credibility question for him. I think they're going to have the elections, but it's another big risk in a suddenly riskier Middle East universe.

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