Election Day in Israel, from Sharon to Netanyahu

Bruce Riedel

This election night I’m reminded of one more than a decade ago. Ariel Sharon won the February 2001 election in a landslide. The second intifada was underway and Israelis wanted a strongman with a proven track record of fighting terrorism.

George W. Bush had also just been elected, although not in a landslide. His National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice had asked me to stay on in the White House to help keep the Middle East from blowing up. 

On election night in Israel, I got a phone call from the White House Situation Room about seven in the evening. They were transferring a call to me from Sharon’s son Omri who had been deeply involved in his father’s campaign. I expected a request to arrange a congratulatory call from Bush to Sharon.

Instead a very nervous Omri asked me to urgently relay a message to Condi. It transpired that earlier that day Sharon had told an Israeli reporter that as the next Prime Minister he looked forward to meeting Dr. Rice. He then said that when he had met her a year earlier in Israel he was smitten by her “very nice legs.” Father and son Sharon wanted to tell Rice it was a slip of the tongue on an exhausting day, not an insult to the president’s top adviser on foreign policy.

I said I was certain Dr. Rice would appreciate the remark in a friendly manner and not resent Sharon’s statement. At that point, Ariel came on the line himself, also much agitated, and said it was vital I explain all this to Dr. Rice as soon as possible. Sharon, who had known me since 1984, said he did not want to get off to a bad start with the White House due to a thoughtless remark.

I dutifully called Condi. It was a bit of an awkward conversation but she laughed it off and told me to reassure Sharon. So I called Omri back and again got the elder Sharon on the line. I told him not to lose any sleep and passed on Condi’s congratulations. 

Ariel Sharon had learned the hard way in the early 1980s that Israeli politicians who cross swords with the White House lose support in Israel. Sharon’s Lebanon war had lost favor with Ronald Reagan who made clear his lack of confidence in Sharon. The then American ambassador in Israel, Sam Lewis, reinforced the message of Presidential disfavor at every opportunity. Sharon did not want to go into the dog house again over a silly flippant remark. 

Bibi Netanyahu seems to have forgotten Sharon’s lesson. His open defiance of President Barack Obama and his speech to Congress attacking the President’s Iran policy was a move Sharon would never have contemplated. It may not have hurt Bibi in the polls, but it does not appear to have been the election winning ploy Bibi hoped for.