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January 18, 2006

Hugh Hewitt interviews Bret Stephens about Ariel Sharon

HH: Joining me now to discuss both Sharon's place in history and the aftermath of his disability is Bret Stephens, who is of course with the Wall Street Journal. He is a longtime watcher of Israeli politics, having edited the Jerusalem Post for a number of years. Bret, what years were you in Jerusalem?

BS: I was there beginning, well, as editor of the Jerusalem Post, beginning in 2002, running through the end of 2004. So about three years.

HH: And tell us, to set the stage, how you view Ariel Sharon and his significance.

BS: I think there's...it would be hard to gainsay the fact that he's probably the most significant prime minister Israel has had since the founder, David Ben-Gurion. What he has...he came to office five years ago in February, 2001, when Israel was under not just a sustained terrorist attack from the Palestinians, but also facing increasing international isolation and a very serious economic crisis. And he really lifted the country out of what could have been a whirlwind. He did, I think, three things that are going to be considered to be historically significant. The first thing is that he defeated the Palestinian intifada and proved, therefore, that there is a military solution in the face of suicide terrorism, or other kinds of terrorism. As I'm sure you know, Hugh, at the time, people would repeat like a mantra that there is no military solution to terrorism.

HH: Right.

BS: That it would simply lead to a cycle of violence of the kind that Steven Spielberg in his new movie talks about, and it was sheer folly for Israel to fight fire with fire. But the result was actually quite telling. In 2002, 453 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks. Last year, 2005, that number was 45. That's a 90% reduction in terrorist strikes. I mean, that really is extremely significant.

HH: Of course, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, he also has a role from the beginning of the state forward, really, as both a military commander of huge achievement, but also the mastermind of the invasion of Lebanon. He's just been there for longer than any American politician has dominated a scene, correct?

BS: Yeah, in a sense, he's sort of comparable to some of the American founders. You think of, say, someone like James Madison, who lived until, I think, 1836, 60 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He is truly one of the founders of the state. He was an infantryman in some of the crucial battles of Israel's war of independence in 1948. He was probably Israel's most renowned commando in the 1950's, when they were fighting early Palestinian Fedayeen, basically terrorist attacks on Israel. This is long before Israel took over the West Bank and the Gaza strip. In 1967, he directed some of the most important tank battles in the Six Day War. In fact, I'm told that at West Point, his tactics in some of those tank battles continues to be studied as a kind of classic of the genre. In 1973, in the Yom Kippur War, he basically helped Israel regain the initiative it had lost, following the initial attack. He crossed the Suez Canal, and regained the kind of military balance that Israel had lost. And then famously, in 1982, as defense minister, he had been the mastermind of the effort to sweep the PLO from Lebanon, an effort which eventually led Israel very controversially into Beirut, and resulted in, among other things, a massacre of Palestinians by other Lebanese, I should stress, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Because Israel was supposedly in command of the Beirut area, an Israeli court of inquiry found him indirectly responsible for those massacres, which has since contributed to this mythology that he is the butcher of Sabra and Shatila. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharon never ordered the attack, and wasn't aware of it when it took place, even though he was potentially negligent in not preventing it.

HH: He famously sued Time Magazine over that very point.

BS: Yeah, that's exactly right.

HH: And I thought, Bret Stephens, comment on the analogy to Churchill, who had his Dardanelles, as Sharon had his Beirut, but also nine lives in politics, in many different parties.

BS: It's absolutely extraordinary. I mean, Sharon sort of began as a man of the old Mapai, really the...David Ben-Gurion's Labor Party, shifted to the right under the prime ministership of Menachem Begin in the late 70's and 80's, was considered a founder and prime mover of the settlement movement, came to office...consistently opposed the Oslo Accords, for which I think history's vindicated him, came to office in 2001, widely perceived as a hard-line rightist, and in fact, turned out to be a centrist, so much so that his decision to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank eventually forced a rupture with his very own political party, the Likud. And as you know, in the last two months of his life, he had founded a new party called Kadima, which means forward, which looked set to sweep the elections coming up in March, and may still do so. It has attracted some of the larger talents in Israeli politics.

HH: Did you know him?

BS: Yes, I did.

HH: Tell us about his personality, because to Americans, at least to me, he's a very remote figure of extraordinary accomplishment, but I really don't have a sense of the man himself.

BS: Actually, I think he's one of...I would have to say that among political figures I have met, and I've met many, he was genuinely, the most genuinely warm and personable man I've met. And this is true, one of the things you'll find is that even his long-standing political opponents, people like Shimon Peres and others who were very much on the left of Israeli politics, have nothing but good things to say about Sharon the man. He was a very loving father, he was a very loving husband, and he exuded that sense of warmth. There was nothing petty or paranoid or suspicious about him, something you don't encounter often in politicians. He was really the genuine article. And just on a personal level, I'm extremely saddened by the news, because he was just someone you plain liked. There was a warmth about him that you rarely find in anyone, much less in a politician.

HH: Was he a religious man?

BS: He was not. He was heartily secular, and...I mean, he was religious in the sort of sense that he...whether he believed in God or not, I frankly don't know. He certainly wasn't an observant Jew in the way that Orthodox Jews would consider observant.

HH: Now this is an odd question, but perhaps not so for someone like you who deals with Americans who don't know much about Israel all the time. When we read about Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, there's a sort of mystical attachment to the idea of Israel. Did Sharon share that?

BS: Yeah, no, I think that's absolutely right. I mean, Sharon...you have to remember, Sharon was born in I think 1928, when Israel was a British mandate, and the idea of a Jewish state was still twenty years off. And land meant a lot to him. He ran the largest farm in Israel. His farm in the Negev was his real home, and he took absolutely every opportunity, even when he was prime minister, to spend time there. I think he had...I mean, I don't know if you want to call it a mystical attachment to the land, but he was attached to the land in a way that farmers and ranchers are often attached to the land. At the same time, his attachment, while cultural, was not the same kind of religious attachment that you find with many observant Jews to specific locations. And you know, that's...it's an interesting question you ask, and I think it'll be left to one of Sharon's biographers to anwer it better than I can.

HH: A minute to a break, and I hope you can stay, Bret, to look forward into what happens after Sharon. But what were the man's flaws? There are all these charges of corruption around his son, etc. But what were his flaws?

BS: Well, I mean, he was a changeable man, and if you...look, I always thought of Sharon as basically a tough-minded pragmatist, in that he was willing to shift, politically, when he thought it was right. It would be very easy to simply reinterpret precisely the actions in which I saw pragmatism as a kind of political opportunism, shifting with the wind, staying a step ahead of public opinion. And a lot of my friends who are more to the right in matters of Israeli politics than I am, have accused him of that. And the accusation isn't totally unfair. Where I do think the accusation really was unfair, and in some ways, grotesque, was the depiction of Sharon as a kind of moral monster, who ate Palestinian children for breakfast.

HH: Right, right.

BS: That's where...

HH: The monstrous slander.

HH: Let's turn to the situation in Israel. With elections looming in March, Bret Stephens, just describe the players for those of us who are not as familiar as you might be.

BS: Good question. There are a lot of players, and the field is wide open. The official standard bearer of what remains of the Likud Party, which was the party Ariel Sharon founded, long-standing member of it, is a former prime minister himself, Benjamin Netanyahu. He had been...he had served very successfully for two years as Sharon's finance minister, and helped to push some very necessary free market reforms in Israel's very, very socialist economy. He broke with the government last year on account of the withdrawal of the Israeli settlements from Gaza, was intending to challenge Sharon in the Likud Party primary, and then Sharon basically stole his thunder, formed the new Kadima Party, and took a lot of Likud members with him. Among the people that Sharon took with him is the former chief of staff, Moffaz, who was, Shaul Moffaz, who was serving as defense minister for the past four years, and has a certain amount of credibility. Israelis like to have people with...they like to have generals as leaders.

HH: Sure.

BS: They had one in Yitzhak Rabin, of course. They had one in Ehud Barak. They had one, of course, in Ariel Sharon, and in Moffaz. I should add that Netanyahu was a commando, but he was never a general.

HH: Is it going to be the first time in Israeli politics, though, that there's a leadership struggle even before there's an election? Because there's no...I mean, aren't these guys all going to want to lead the parade at this point?

BS: Well, that's probably...look, I mean, all of them will end up, or most of them will end up with some kind of government position. I mean, Israeli politics...Israel has a parliamentary system. Even someone like Sharon, who had a huge plurality in politics, never really had an absolute majority, so they always have to form coalitions. And so, it's likely that even if someone like...even if, say, Kadima doesn't win a plurality of seats in the election, it will form a coalition with whoever the victor is, probably Likud, and will have some of its people in key government portfolios.

HH: That's interesting what you just said. Do you expect Likud to win this election now?

BS: No, I think Kadima will still win it.

HH: Okay.

BS: Although I have to tell you, I want to couch that prediction with some reservations. It's really...we really are in terra incognita, in terms of Israeli politics. You have to understand that a massive political figure has very abruptly exited the stage, and done so at a time when Israeli politics had already been vastly shaken up. And it's really very hard to tell where things are going to fall. And in Israel, a lot happens in short spans of time. The election is at the end of March, so we have three months to go. And all sorts of potential coalitions could shake up, and you never know what kind of external events are going to take place, with respect to the Palestinians, with respect to the Syrians, with respect to Iran, that could really reshape the context of Israeli politics.

HH: Now earlier today, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, again just boldly proclaimed what many anti-Semites hope for, which is the death of Sharon as being a great thing, and hopefully others like him will join him, too, he said. I mean, the guy's a nutter. Israel's on the brink of perilous, perilous times. Is that going to drive the sort of Moffaz candidacy forward? Or maybe a Netanyahu, whose been there and done that candidacy?

BS: Look, in the matter of Israel's security in the broader Middle East, most of the potential contenders for the premiership, including figures traditionally on the left like Shimon Peres, are of one mind when it comes to the Iranian threat. And they understand how serious it is. They understand it's an existential threat. They understand that in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they're dealing with a kind of Hitlerian figure, and I use those terms, you know, considerately. And they're aware that if the United States fails to act, Israel may have to take its security interests in its own hands. Of course, Israeli leaders are extremely reserved on the subject for reasons you can well appreciate, but everyone from Shimon Peres to Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, to Moffaz, to Netanyahu, all of them, I think, would see exactly eye to eye on Iran, whatever their differences are about domestic issues or dealing with the Palestinians.

HH: The New Republic's editor in chief, Martin Peretz was on the program earlier this week, talking about his article on chaos in Gaza. This was before the Sharon stroke. And I'm not sure Americans understand how sort of chaos is reigning just over the border. Does the United States have an accurate idea of sort of the climate of instability that now surrounds, and is indeed within Israel?

BS: Well, look. The chaos in Gaza...I mean, I don't know what you mean by the United States. Do American policy makers understand that?

HH: Yes, and the American public generally.

BS: Yes. Yeah, well, I don't know about the public generally. I think this...the policy makers in this administration have a pretty good idea of what's happening there. I mean, I think this administration has been head and shoulders above its predecessors in being shrewd about Arafat, shrewd about the Palestinians, shrewd about what needs to happen, in order for the Palestinians to present some kind of realistic...for there to be some kind of realistic prospect of peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Now in terms of the chaos that's going on, I mean, you're absolutely right. Gaza has descended into absolute...a kind of civil strife, and anarchy. You may have heard that Rachel Corrie's parents were briefly taken hostage.

HH: Yes.

BS: Rachel Corrie was the young woman who was killed while standing in front of an Israeli bulldozer, one or two years ago. And her parents had, I think, were sympathetic with the Palestinian cause, and went into the Gaza strip from its border with Egypt, and were promptly kidnapped. So it gives you a sense of the complete...

HH: Chaos.

BS: ...tenor of the place. That said, for a long time, Palestinian political energies have been driven with a view towards opposing and fighting for the destruction of Israel. And it is not at all surprising. I have written this. I wrote this when Arafat died over a year ago, that Palestinian politics would quickly dissolve in a pseudo-independent state, into precisely the kind of in-fighting that we're seeing here. There may be something salutary about Palestinians trying to figure out for themselves what their country is all about, and what they stand for.

HH: Bret Stephens, thirty seconds. Last question. If Ariel Sharon had had the foresight to leave a political will and testament, before his incapacity, naming who he wished would be the new prime minister of Israel, who do you think that would have been?

BS: David Ben-Gurion. No, I think he was close with Ehud Olmert, the current vice premiere, the acting prime minister. And my guess is that that would have been his choice, although not by any stretch, an ideal one.

HH: Bret Stephens, always a pleasure, from the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for your very, very informed analysis.

End of interview.

Judith | 01/18/06 at 11:38 PM | Categories: Eretz Yisrael

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Comments

Dyanmite interview. Thanks!

Jeremiah | January 22, 2006 05:51 PM

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