Cato and Caesar

By Assaf Sagiv

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riel Sharon’s stroke in early January shocked and dismayed an Israeli public that saw its prime minister as the embodiment of strength and resilience—even invincibility. At a high point of popularity and commanding an almost unprecedented political mandate, a victory for Sharon and his new Kadima party in the upcoming national elections was all but certain. His sudden departure left a huge leadership vacuum and a public apprehensive about Israel’s future.
The support and admiration which Sharon enjoyed during the past few years has been the subject of much speculation and analysis. That someone who was vilified, both at home and abroad, by so many people for so long could turn into a media and voter favorite is still a mystery to many pundits. After the prime minister’s collapse, many commentators noted that the only thing Sharon ever changed about his trademark steamroller tactics was their targets; by strong-arming the Gaza disengagement, he won the praise of the political Left and Center. Even the more cynical of Israeli columnists were enchanted by his new public image. Yaron London wrote in Yediot Aharonot that “Losing him is like losing a father… Expected, but always frightening and depressing. In this case, it was made tenfold more frightening by the fact that only weeks before his departure, he began a bold process that he did not have a chance to finish. The sheep he so loved to surround himself with when being photographed on his ranch… are us.” Yoel Marcus, in his Haaretz column, compared Sharon to Charles de Gaulle and noted that by the end of his journey, “the prime minister had achieved the status of ‘father of the nation.’” Journalist and historian Tom Segev’s tone was a bit more circumspect as he attempted to define Sharon’s legacy: “No prime minister since Ben-Gurion—including Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Rabin—enjoyed Sharon’s popularity…. Sharon managed to prevent himself from being identified with politics; like Ben-Gurion, he was identified with the state itself. Sharon was and remains a military man, and even as prime minister tended to run the country as a general, not as a citizen among equals.”
One need not endorse everything Sharon did during his career to recognize the enormity of his contribution to the State of Israel over the course of six decades. And yet, there is something disquieting about the public sentiment that elevated him to the status of “father of the nation,” as Marcus put it—a status he achieved because of, and not despite, his being seen as an authoritative leader who could be aggressive and relentless.
Sharon may have ended his career on a tragic note. But the hopes which the public placed in him will continue to shape the political discourse in Israel for years to come. It is a good time, therefore, to take stock of these trends, and to sound a warning about the dangers they pose for Israeli democracy.


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