Israel's Sharon Still Ahead of Barak Despite Rough Week

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - In what could have been a devastating week for a prime ministerial candidate, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon seems to have come out almost unscathed in his race against incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak, according to public opinion polls published on Friday.

Results of surveys printed in various newspapers show Sharon maintaining a double-digit lead over Barak. This, despite a week in which secret talks between Sharon's advisors and an envoy of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat came to light.

Sharon also lost a mock election at a local high school known for picking the winners ahead of actual elections.

Also this week, the Likud leader was verbally attacked by a 16-year-old girl at a routine campaign stop at her high school. She accused Sharon of hurting her family, because her father suffered shell shock after participating in the 1982 war in Lebanon. Sharon was Defense Minister at the time.

It later emerged that the teenager who berated Sharon is in charge of a pro-Barak campaign at her school, but the encounter prompted Sharon to cancel any further high school appearances.

Despite the negative press, one radio reporter commented that Sharon seems to be made of Teflon - no accusations against him are sticking.

A poll in the widest circulation daily, Yediot Ahronot, showed Sharon actually gaining a point, placing him 17 ahead of Barak. The widest lead was reported in Ma'ariv, which placed Sharon 18 points ahead.

Barak's Labor Party's own poll put Sharon 13 points ahead, while the religious newspaper Hatzofeh, published a poll in which Sharon led by 10 points.

Some analysts say the poll figures are actually a reflection of antipathy towards Barak rather than backing for Sharon.

Sharon supporters, on the other hand, say voting for their man is the only way to save the country.

One compared him to Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill who, despite mistakes, took the helm during its greatest hour of need. Such leadership is needed now to prevent the destruction of Israel, he said.

Analyst Michael Freund, an official in the government of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, suggested in a commentary published in the Jerusalem Post that Sharon could be Israel's Charles de Gaulle.

At a time of near chaos in France, de Gaulle - many of whose policies in retrospect were judged controversial - came to power and restored a sense of identity to the people. What Israel needs now is the restoration of a sense of "pride and purpose" as well as patriotism in the country and Sharon could be the one to do that, Freund wrote.

Much of the criticism leveled against Sharon has focused on role as Defense Minister during the Lebanon invasion. He is also accused of recklessness for certain actions he took during earlier years in the army.


One Israeli military analyst, who said he is not necessarily a Sharon supporter, defended Sharon's military history.

Colonel Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, whose own military career began before establishment of the state of Israel, said Sharon had set "a new standard of fighting for the Israeli armed forces," which was adopted by every branch of the military in the early years of the state.

In 1956, Sharon commanded the paratroop attack on Mitla Pass in Egypt's Sinai Desert. Although he succeeded in capturing the pass, he had not followed his orders exactly and casualties were high. Sharon was punished by then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and gained the reputation of being reckless, Tsiddon-Chatto said.

"[However], basically in every mission he succeeded where other people did not...[But] he was never too popular with anybody except those known to be tough fighters," he said. "He was non-conventional, non establishment."

As a division commander in the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon was again victorious in the Sinai. He resigned from the military in June 1972, but was recalled to command an armored division when Syria and Egypt attacked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, in 1973.

After the Yom Kippur War, which took Israel by surprise and nearly destroyed the country, Sharon crossed paths with Tsiddon-Chatto, who had been chief of planning and operations of the air force in earlier years.

While evaluating air support to ground troops, Tsiddon-Chatto debriefed army units, including those which had been under Sharon's command.

Speaking to various soldiers, he was told by one that in the height of battle Sharon had given a command. It was obeyed and they won. Another soldier in a different place echoed the story.

Tsiddon-Chatto said that he realized that Sharon's presence was so strong that it had seemed to the soldiers that he was right in the midst of battle with them. "It was brilliant," he recalled.

But less than 10 years later, Sharon found himself in deep trouble. As Defense Minister, he was involved in sending troops into south Lebanon in 1982 to rout Arafat's PLO, which was using Lebanon as a launching-pad to attack Israel.

Israel pushed into Lebanon almost all the way to the capital Beirut. When it came time to take the city, Christian Phalange militiamen allied with Israel were assigned to take a certain sector, in which the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla were situated.

During the raids, the militiamen entered the camps and massacred hundreds of Arabs. Sharon was blamed for the tragedy.

"How could a Defense Minister far away be accountable for what was at the time a relatively small detail?" Tsiddon-Chatto asked of the decision to assign the militiamen to that particular area.

A government appointed commission later held Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacres. He was forced to resign as minister due to the public outcry. According to Tsiddon-Chatto, the commission included military officers who had never liked Sharon.

In any case, he said, he does not believe it is fair to criticize Sharon for things that happened 20 years ago.

Tsiddon-Chatto said he did not yet know who he would vote for in the upcoming elections.