Israel's Lack of Direction One Year Without Sharon

One year after Ariel Sharon had a stroke and slipped into a coma, Israel misses him more than ever. The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stumbled from scandal to scandal and has shown little ability to lead.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has had difficulty stepping out of Sharon's shadow.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has had difficulty stepping out of Sharon's shadow.

The shock was deep. A year ago this week, Israel's popular but controversial prime minister collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Ariel Sharon, a man known as "The Bulldozer," had suffered a massive stroke and needed emergency surgery.

The entire country nervously awaited the outcome -- and followed the drama on television as their prime minister was carried into the emergency room on a stretcher. The next day, newspapers printed the last image of Sharon, showing him in the ambulance which had delivered him to the clinic from his ranch in the Negev Desert where he had suffered his stroke. Only his head could be seen, but since then, no more images have been released. He has now been in a coma for 366 days. "His condition is stable, but critical," is all the clinic will say.

But even as Sharon's condition varies little from day to day, during his year in the hospital Israel's political landscape has changed radically. Scandal after scandal has rocked the country in recent months as Sharon's successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, hit the headlines with alleged financial misconduct and a dubious real estate deal that is still under investigation. Israeli President Mosche Katzav is likewise being investigated for sexual misconduct and the country's justice minister had to resign last summer after allegedly forcing a female soldier to kiss him.

Scandal after scandal

Just this week, a new scandal hit the highest echelons of government. Olmert's Chief of Staff Shula Zaken is being questioned by Israel's tax authority as the prime suspect in corruption allegations. She and others are suspected of giving tax breaks to leading businessman and arranging appointments with government officials in exchange for monetary payments.

Of course the Israeli political landscape was never free from scandal, and Sharon himself became entangled in a couple of doozies. His son Omri Sharon will even have to spend a bit of time in the slammer for corrupt financial dealings.

But in the time since Olmert has taken up his post in the prime minister's office, the number of transgressions has increased markedly. Never before have so many government officials become entangled in so many improprieties as during 2006. And voters are growing restless. While they may have been willing to accept Sharon's faults, Israelis do not seem to be predisposed to forgiving Olmert.

Sharon continues to loom over political life in Israel. Even as Sharon was sharply criticized by the left, he spent decades in the Israeli spotlight and was seen as something of a father figure for the country. Olmert pales in comparison -- and his popularity ratings reflect that. Fully 77 percent of Israelis say that Olmert is not doing a good job according to a recent survey conducted by the Dahaf Institute. Sixty percent rated his personal integrity as "not good," and 75 percent said his decision making was "not good." Only 23 percent approve of the job he is doing.

"Nobody can fill Sharon's shoes"

Sharon, in short, left behind a massive vacuum. That, at least, is what Israeli journalist Shalom Yerushalmi believes. Were he still around, Yerushalmi says, 2006 would have been a better year for the Middle East. Olmert, he says, simply doesn't have the experience that his predecessor did. "Nobody can fill Sharon's shoes," he says. "They are simply too big."

Zalman Shoval, a former Sharon aide and Israeli ambassador to the US in the early 1990s, agrees. In fact, he says, the country's entire leadership is weak. Defense Minister Amir Peretz may have been a good union boss, but he has been able to earn little respect from the military. Indeed, reports on Thursday indicated that Olmert may be planning to remove him. Shoval says that under Sharon, Peretz would never have advanced as far as he did due to his lack of leadership qualities and experience.

Leadership has also been in short supply in the Israeli military. Dan Halutz, the Israeli army's chief of staff, has had only a tenuous hold on his job recently due to mistakes made during the recent war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. He has rejected calls for his resignation even as he has admitted failures in leadership.

Sharon, on the other hand -- as even some of his enemies are willing to admit -- was a master at crisis management. Indeed, even some of his most ardent opponents miss his steady hand these days. Amos Oz for example. A year ago, Oz praised Sharon for his "mysterious transformation" which made him suddenly sound less like the military leader he had been throughout his career and more like a pacifist from the left. Sharon's unilateral decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip not only represented a dramatic new course for Israel, but also had to be pushed through against bitter resistance from the right.

Indecisive leadership

Olmert, by comparison, seems to have little in the way of a political vision. The main policy he campaigned on -- that of withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and dismantling some of the settlements there -- was left behind months ago. Instead of fulfilling his campaign promises, he shuffled his coalition government to include the right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman, a man not exactly known for his willingness to compromise with Israel's Palestinian neighbors.

Sharon was rushed to the hospital a year ago.

Sharon was rushed to the hospital a year ago.

Whereas Sharon, by the end of his career, had become an adroit politician who avoided saying too much, Olmert has had difficulty holding his tongue. Over and over again, he crosses the line, only to have his statements "clarified" or even corrected by his spokesman. The most embarrassing example came during his recent trip to Berlin. Olmert seemed to admit that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, countering decades of denials by the country's leadership.

Israel's largest leadership error in the year since Sharon vacated the political stage, though, is the summer war in Lebanon. Olmert knew his lack of a substantial military background had some doubting his toughness, so when Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol on the Lebanon border on July 12, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two others, Olmert reacted with a long land war.

Not having to prove his mettle in battle, Sharon would likely have reacted differently, says Shoval. "Sharon would have countered the Hezbollah attack with a massive, but short military attack," he says. He would likely have been more patient, and taken the time to develop a clear course of action with his advisors.

Olmert's spontaneous invasion ultimately came to naught. After one month, international outcry and stronger-than-expected resistance by Hezbollah resulted in an Israeli withdrawal. None of Olmert's war aims were fulfilled. Israel had never missed Sharon more.

Pierre Heumann is a Middle East correspondent for Switzerland's Weltwoche magazine.


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