There is a long debate in sociology about the nature and roots of charisma. While Max Weber described it as a special virtue possessed by a gifted person, or conversely as an attribute created by his office, Edward Shills argued that the traits of the person to whom charisma is attributed is irrelevant. Charisma is a basic and desperate need of a deeply troubled society that is seeking a redeemer. My own opinion is that the emergence of a charismatic leader is a conjunction of both a long-lasting state of emergency with a special personal character. This conjunction produces a charismatic situation filled by a charismatic personality.
There is no doubt that Israel is a very troubled country, especially since the 1967 war. In spite of the unprecedented immigration of more than one million of Jews and non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River contains about 5 million Jews (and non-Arabs) and 4.5 million Palestinians (both citizens and non-citizens). This demographic reality transformed Israel into a de facto binational country, an apartheid state.
Current demographic projections indicate that future population figures will favor the Palestinians and further imperil the slender Jewish demographic majority. Demographers projected that by the year of 2020, a total of 15.1 million persons will live on the land of historic Palestine with Jews being a minority of 6.5 million. Moreover, even within Israel itself, in about twenty years, the Jewish population will be reduced from its current 81 percent majority to a projected majority of barely 65 percent. Some Israelis, when presented with this demographic picture, recommended that Israeli areas densely populated with Arabs be transferred to the Palestinian state in exchange for three major Jewish settlement blocks situated in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Two deeply rooted existential anxieties exist within the Jewish Israeli political culture: one concerns the physical annihilation of the state, an issue that is frequently used, abused, and emotionally manipulated by many Israeli politicians and intellectuals, and the other, the loss of the fragile Jewish demographic majority on which the supremacy and identity of the state rest. In fact, the loss of that demographic majority could be a prelude to politicide and the physical elimination of the state. Thus, the annexationist camp found itself in an impossible situation: One patriotic imperative, to possess the sacred land, contradicted the other patriotic imperative, to ensure a massive Jewish majority on the land.
Since his election as Prime Minister on February 6, 2001, Ariel Sharon led the people of Israel like the Pied Piper lad the rats and the kids of Hamelin to hell, as a genuine “charismator.” Using the anxiety aroused by the dirty Palestinian warfare, he not only destroyed the Palestinian Authority but also Israeli democracy by suffocating any opposition from either the right or the left.
Following Sharon’s forceful implementation of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the dismantlement of all the Jewish settlements there and some in the West Bank, and, primarily, his split from the Likud Party and formation of his own personal party, many people, both in Israel and abroad, perceived him as a surprisingly reborn version of De Klerk or De-Gaulle. This new Sharon would, they hoped, liberate Israel from its colonies and evacuate the Israeli pied noirs. After all, Sharon was raised in the bosom of the pragmatic Labor Party and was also the man who established the precedent of evacuating the Jewish settlements in the Sinai after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.
And indeed, in some measure, the Sharon of 2005-6 was not the Sharon of 1982 who invaded Lebanon, was found responsible for the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, and who entangled Israel in a Vietnam-style war that killed about 675 Israeli soldiers and about 17,800 Lebanese many of them non-combatants. No wonder that Sharon was considered a war criminal by many people around the world and also by those Israelis who refused to bury their memory or to forgive and refused to believe that Sharon had undergone a genuine metamorphosis.
However, Sharon as prime minister had learned the Lebanese lesson and realized that he had to create both domestic and international support for his policies and that it is impossible to achieve long-term goals with naked power alone. Recently, his rhetoric has been relatively moderate and ambiguous -- in contrast with his deeds on the ground. He declared several times that, at after that Palestinians had had their expectations reduced, that they were entitled to their own state. On the surface, this sounded like a complete conversion and an attempt to re-educate his people. He told his constituency that peace could be achieved but that this "would require painful concessions from Israel". He also said that some Palestinian state should be established within five years or so and refused to rescind this declaration, even in the face of pressure from extreme rightwing politicians, including his political challenger like Benjamin Netanyahu. At the same time, he vowed never to uproot most Jewish settlements. However, Sharon did not reveal any signs that he has changed any of his basic premises of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—that is to retain a maximum amount of territory containing a minimum number of Arabs. Hence, the reality of Sharon’s plan is that, after reducing Palestinian political inspirations and destroying most of its infrastructure, he wanted to impose his will on them using cruel and extreme military and economic measures.
Being a person who is able to read maps well, Ariel Sharon found Bush’s road map highly convenient. Speaking at the annual meeting of the newspaper editors’ committee on November 5, 2002 and on the same day at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, Sharon expressed a clear vision of how the conflict should be managed. He said that with the implementation of the road map proposed by President Bush, Israel would create a contiguous area of territory in the West Bank allowing Palestinians to travel from Jenin to Hebron without passing through any Israeli roadblocks or checkpoints. This could be accomplished with a combination of tunnels and bridges. He later said, however, that Israel would take measures such as “creating territorial continuity between Palestinian population centers” -- i.e, withdrawing from major urban and over-populated areas in order to preserve a solid Jewish majority while the Palestinians were still engaged in making a “sincere and real effort to stop terror.” After the required reforms in the Palestinian Authority have been completed, Sharon said the next phase of the Bush plan comes into effect: the establishment of that Palestinian state.
The unilateral withdraw from the Gaza Strip, the coerced dismantlement of settlements in Gaza and the northern parts of the West Bank, and mainly the construction of the “security fence” did indeed signify a new political and strategic doctrine -- one designed to impose on the Palestinians and on the domestic opposition a permanent border that was erected according to mixed considerations of “security”, political feasibility, land grabbing—about 15-29 percent of the West Bank, depending on the final route of the fence—and demography.
Sharon’s intention was obvious. The Palestinian state would be formed by four enclaves around the cities of Jenin, Nablus, Hebron, and the Gaza Strip that lack territorial contiguity. The plan to connect the enclaves with tunnels and bridges means that there will be a strong Israeli presence in most other areas of the West Bank. The only trouble with this “peace plan” is that no Palestinian leader would accept such a fragmented state after the leadership had already renounced claims to 78% of historic Palestine.
In spite of the obvious limitations of his policies, Sharon will be remembered from now until eternity by mythmakers and in the collective memory as a Man of Peace. My own wish is that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- after his disappearance from the scene.
Baruch Kimmerling is Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of recently republished book The Invention and Decline of Israeliness.
Other Articles by Baruch Kimmerling
No Reason for a Quiet Evacuation