It was ironic that Israel's Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz announced his decision to indict Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's son, Knesset member Omri Sharon, on criminal corruption charges related to his management of his father's political campaigns – charges that could lead to five years' imprisonment – at the same time the prime minister was en route to Paris for a state visit.
The timing of Mazuz's announcement was ironic because it brought to the surface just how similar 72-year-old French President Jacques Chirac and 76-year-old Ariel Sharon are. Omri's indictment, which reinforces the already entrenched public perception of Sharon's corruption, aligns nicely with the corruption scandals that have plagued Chirac for the past several years. The Paris prosecutors are reportedly eagerly awaiting Chirac's departure from office in 2007 to indict him for corruption charges stemming from his tenure as Paris mayor in the 1990s. In May, the US Senate's investigation of the UN's oil-for-food scandal revealed that former French interior minister Charles Pasqua, a man who the committee described as a "longtime friend and political ally" of Chirac, received oil vouchers for 11 million barrels of Iraqi oil. Pasqua has denied the charges.
This week it was reported that longtime Sharon crony South African businessman Cyril Kern is an investor in a project to build a casino in Elei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip after the government expels the community's Jewish residents next month. Allegations that Kern illegally funded Sharon's political campaigns form the basis for one of the ongoing criminal investigations being conducted against the premier.
On Tuesday, the Knesset State Control Committee launched an investigation into Brig.-Gen. (res.) Eival Giladi, who serves in the Prime Minister's Office as the coordinator of all governmental activities related to the withdrawal of the IDF and the expulsion of Jewish residents from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. Earlier in the month Makor Rishon newspaper and Israel News Resource Agency revealed that Giladi also serves as the director of the British nonprofit Portland Trust, which is seeking to raise $500 million in investment funds to develop Gush Katif after it is emptied of its Jewish residents in the operation that Giladi oversees.
Aside from their age and suspected corruption, Chirac and Sharon also share a disdain for popular democracy. In his relentless drive to build up the European Union under Franco-German leadership as a counterweight to the US, Chirac has done more than any other single European leader in recent years to transform European nation-states into mere vassals of the post-democratic regime of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels.
The stunning defeat French voters delivered to the EU constitution sent Chirac's approval numbers into the low forties and was rightly seen by observers as a rejection of his post-democratic dream by his own, underrepresented and trampled countrymen. In reacting to his failure, Chirac compounded the damage by appointing Dominique de Villepin, the co-architect of his anti-American, anti-Israel policy, French prime minister. Villepin has the distinction of never having been elected to public office.
Like Chirac, Sharon, too, has worked hard to undermine the public will as expressed at the polls in the January 2003 election. Ignoring his party and his cabinet, Sharon has made every key decision with his unelected, unaccountable political and public relations advisers. He fired cabinet ministers who objected to the Gaza withdrawal and expulsion plan and replaced them with representatives of the leftist Labor Party, which the Israeli voters eviscerated in the last elections. He disregarded the will of his party members by ignoring their overwhelming rejection of his withdrawal and expulsion plan in May 2004 after he himself called for the poll.
What distinguishes him from Chirac is that Sharon did not bow to public pressure; he refused to allow a national referendum of his plan, preferring instead to build an artificial majority for it in the Knesset by bribing Likud members of Knesset with ministerial and deputy ministerial positions.
On the face of it, Sharon's visit this week to Paris seems to have been a remarkable success. Chirac greeted his Israeli guest with all the ceremony reserved for revered guests like the late Yasser Arafat. The red carpet was pulled out. The honor guard played "Hatikva." Fish were eaten and wine was ingested as lively jokes were told around the luncheon table at the Elysee Palace.
And yet, there was no substance to the meeting. Chirac made no move to revisit his support for every Palestinian demand against Israel currently on the table. He similarly refused to acknowledge that Hizbullah is a terrorist organization or to work toward the organization's disarmament. While he stated that Iran must cease its quest to achieve nuclear capabilities, he insisted that France, together with Britain and Germany, will continue to drag out negotiations with the mullahs. This, in spite of the fact that Iran's outgoing president Muhammad Khatami announced that Iran will continue to enrich uranium at its Isfahan nuclear installation and in spite of the fact that, while Chirac was meeting with Sharon, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced that the Shihab-3 ballistic missiles that are capable of hitting Israel and Europe now can be launched using solid fuel technology.
THE ONLY reason that Sharon's meetings in Paris went off so well is that the leaders had agreed ahead of time not to discuss the main issues that divide them. Chirac made no mention, for instance, of France's support for the Palestinian demand that the Gaza withdrawal be but the first of many and that Israel remove the 450,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria and the neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967. For his part, Sharon softened his call for French Jewry to make aliya, stating meekly that he tells all Jews that.
At the end of the day, it could be said that while Sharon got a fancy photo-op with his anti-Israel French doppelganger, Israel got nothing from his state visit.
The pity of this state of affairs is twofold. Israel has a critical national interest in diversifying its foreign policy. To date, Sharon has placed all his diplomatic efforts on securing US support for his government and for himself, personally. He has received this support from the Bush administration but the price has been the undermining of Israel's relationship with the US.
Since September 11, first under the watchful eye of then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and later under the gaze of his bureau chief and personal attorney Dov Weisglass, Sharon has refused to publicly link the jihad being waged against the US with the jihad being waged against Israel. In so doing, he has enabled the US to adopt two separate policies for dealing with terrorism.
The first policy, which applies only to terrorism against Israel, involves appeasing the terrorists. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's bizarre and offensive embrace of PA chief Mahmoud Abbas during her visit here last week, in the shadow of the renewed Palestinian terror offensive against Israel and in spite of the fact that he has gone out of his way to defend and support Palestinian terrorists since replacing Arafat last November, was case in point.
The US's second policy, which applies everywhere else in the world, is to fight terror.
Sharon has justified his decision to move ahead with the withdrawal and expulsion plan with nonexistent guarantees from President George W. Bush to support the remaining Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and to oppose the Palestinian demand to obliterate Israel through the so-called right of return. The Americans, seeing that Sharon has effectively rendered his own fortunes hostage to Washington's discretion in not making it too clear that no such guarantees were ever made, can now demand anything of him that they wish.
In this state of affairs, one of the things Israel must do is diversify its international ties. And so, improving relations with France and other European countries that have shared interests with Israel is an important move. But, as Sharon's visit showed, he is incapable of delivering the goods.
The second pity of his failure is that both in Israel and in France, as well as Germany, there are other, younger, more vibrant and visionary politicians who are waiting in the wings to take over their countries' leadership once Sharon and Chirac and Chirac's German buddy Gerhard Schroeder finally retire.
In France, Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy is such a leader. He is set to replace Chirac in 2007. In Germany, opposition leader Angela Merkel will in all likelihood replace Schroeder as chancellor after the September elections. In Israel, Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will likely replace Sharon in the next elections, which will probably be called early next year.
All three of these leaders have a firm grasp of the multifaceted challenges facing their countries and a healthy respect for democracy. All three have championed, and Netanyahu and Sarkozy have both overseen, major market reforms. In Netanyahu's case, his banking and tax reform packages sailed through the Knesset the same day that Sharon flew off to France. These reforms, like Netanyahu's budgetary reforms before them, will push Israel even further away from its statist, stagnant, socialist economy, paving the way for unprecedented economic growth in the coming years.
These three leaders, and other similar ones in Holland, Denmark, Italy and Poland, also share an understanding that the global jihad is the largest threat to international security today. Working together, with the US, they could move the US-led war out of its current torpor and paralysis.
The dog and pony show we were witness to this week in Paris, conducted by two beseiged leaders who are well past their prime, was yet another indication that the most urgent challenge we face is persevering through what remains of their respective tenures. The good news is that the cavalry is on its way.