Israel's epic generation passes torch

Sharon is among the last of the leaders who helped build the Jewish state.

On the cover of a biography of Ariel Sharon that is selling in local stores, Israel's soldier politician is pictured neither on the battlefield nor in a government office. Instead, Mr. Sharon is wrapped in a thick wool sweater and cradling a lamb under the title, "The Shepherd."

The folksy image hearkens back to the fabled Israeli pioneer from before the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. As Sharon remained in critical condition this week after a massive stroke, the end of his tenure as prime minister is being seen as the curtain call for a breed of leaders that oversaw the realization of the Zionist project.

"His generation was the heroic generation,'' says David Witzthum, an Israeli television news anchor. "He is the last mythological founding father.''

As Israel waxes nostalgic for the group that struggled to establish the state, many see the generational shift highlighted by the candidates vying in the March parliamentary election as a necessary stage in the young country's maturation.

All of those who could succeed Sharon - Ehud Olmert, leader of Sharon's Kadima Party; Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu; Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz - came of age after Israel's independence, and all are career politicians.

Although none of the three approaches the stature of Sharon, that's actually a welcome change, argues Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and journalist for the daily Haaretz newspaper.

"No one is a DeGaulle, a Churchill, or a Mao Tse Tung. We are now swinging back to life-sized politicians who are managers," he says. "It's not healthy for a democratic society to be ruled by mythological giants. It's a society that tends to escape politics and leave it all to the strong man."

To be sure, Israel has already voted in politicians from the younger generation, Sharon's rise to power in some respects reflects the backlash from disappointment with the performance of Mr. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak as prime minister in the late 1990s.

Neither politician succeeded in holding together their government coalition and neither succeeded in reaching any breakthroughs in the peace process with the Palestinians. Ultimately, both failed to serve out their term and were unseated from office in landslide election defeats.

"The experiment was not particularly successful. After the consecutive failures of Netanyahu and Barak we ran back to the good father," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research institute. "Now there is no father any more, it's just the kids. In Israel we also rise to the occasion, but only when we have absolutely no choice."

And even though former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, 82, remains the last remaining link to Sharon's generation - he was tapped this week as the deputy to Olmert, who is acting prime minister - the former Nobel Peace laureate never enjoyed the adoration that the former generals basked in.

The post-Sharon era in Israel holds the promise of a more normalized brand of politics, observers say. For the current election campaign, it means the focus is likely to shift from Sharon's cult of personality to a debate that pits withdrawing from occupied territories against security, and antiterrorism measures against the economy and social welfare.

"These issues are more similar to the European or American election campaigns. It's no longer meta-political, its within a confined agenda,'' continues Mr. Witzthum.

"It's natural. It's parting from mythology and going into real politics. Up until now we needed this mythology to accompany us because until now there were no defined borders, there was no defined identity."

The parting with the legendary founders is also likely to signal a growing reluctance to coronate ex-security men as party leaders. Indeed, the military generals and secret service chiefs who parachuted into politics in the last decade (most parties are chock-full of them) have largely disappointed. The public may be more disposed to prefer a civilian politician to a collection of former soldiers running the government ministries.

"The younger generation wants to see specialists, and doesn't believe everyone can move from job to job. The younger generation is more technocratic," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. "The tendency of the old generals is to base the merits of people's worth on where they fought."

Sharon's successors have an opportunity to prove that Israel's move to separate from the Palestinians isn't confined to one charismatic leader, but a genuine trend that reflects broad public sentiment.

"It will demonstrate ... that this is the wish of the Israeli majority," says Yaron Ezrahi, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. "Precisely because Olmert doesn't have charisma, it will demonstrate the commitment to the policy of fixing Israel's borders, by negotiation or unilaterally, in the near future."

Mr. Segev speculated that Olmert will have more difficulty dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank than Sharon, but is more likely to reach out to the Palestinians to avoid a flare-up in violence.

"In contrast to Sharon, he does recognize the Palestinians as a potential partner. His change is real," he says. "Without Sharon you suddenly realize that this shelf in the supermarket offers a decent selection of politicians. We are not orphans. There is life after Sharon."

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