Are we ready for Sharongate and its painful aftermath

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It’s been a long, dark 40 months of intifada, and now Israel is about to get darker yet: The era of Sharongate is upon us.

Whether Ariel Sharon gets indicted for bribery or not, whether he hangs onto office or gets chased out, the evidence that’s going to come pouring out will make it even clearer than the recent David Appel indictment.

Appel was indicted for paying thousands of dollars to Sharon’s son Gilad in exchange for political influence. This judicial move has already demonstrated that Israel is being led by a severely, greedily corrupt prime minister.

(Only the presiding judge is required to presume that the person in question is innocent until proven guilty because only the judge has the power to put him in jail. The rest of us are free to think what we want, and I think the same of Sharon as I do of anybody else who’s had so much devastating evidence stacked up against him by police and prosecutors.)

In a way, Sharongate is going to be worse for Israel than the intifada, because there will be no one else to blame but our own side, in the person of the leader whom we elected twice by landslide. He was elected the second time even after the Appel bribery affair had already been fully exposed in the media. And then there was the “Kern loan” matter, where the Sharon family may have bent campaign finance laws in another case of political favoritism.

This will be a purely blue-and-white disaster. Israel’s enemies are licking their chops; they’re going to have a field day. “We told you so,” they’ll say. “How can you take Israel’s word for anything when its leader, the ‘great Ariel Sharon,’ is considered a crook by his own country?”

Remember, Sharon isn’t just any prime minister. Politically, he’s in a class by himself. For the last three years he’s been seen as Israel’s defender, its shield, against a hostile world. He’s a national symbol, the embodiment of Israel’s history — a man of war and a man of the land.

If he’s a big-time crook, where are we?

What do we tell the Jews of the world? What do we tell the young people here, especially when we send them to risk their lives for this country?

What are the millions of Israelis who are struggling financially supposed to do? How do you tell anybody here to obey the law after he reads what the Israel police and state attorney’s offices are saying about Sharon?

If the intifada made Israelis put their future on hold, battering their economy and their standing in the world, Sharongate is going to exacerbate all this. But it’s also going to hurt Israelis in a place the intifada didn’t: in their self-esteem.

And as for any attempt to extricate ourselves from the intifada, i.e., Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan, that’s finished. I doubted whether he had the power to uproot settlements before, but now he has no chance. To overpower the settler movement you need lots and lots of political capital, and Sharon’s is dwindling by the moment.

Israel is now in a political state of emergency of a kind it’s never been in before. For the first time, neither of the two traditional governing parties has the legitimacy to govern.

A democracy runs on two things: majority rule and the law. Since the intifada began, Labor has lost any hope of getting the majority’s support, at least any time soon. Likud, meanwhile, has become a party in which lawlessness reigns, and the problem goes way beyond Sharon and Appel.

Since most Israelis do not trust Labor to run the country now, I see only one way to rebuild from this destruction: The shame of Sharongate has to yield a “post-Sharongate morality,” equivalent to the “post-Watergate morality” of the mid-1970s.

What this means is that Israelis, but especially Likud supporters, must decide they will no longer vote for any leader tainted by corruption.

And what that means is that if Sharon falls, Benjamin Netanyahu cannot take his place.

It was Netanyahu who set the precedent of a prime minister who spends his time in and out of police investigators’ rooms, and it didn’t end for him when he left office. It was Netanyahu who degraded ethical standards to the point where anybody who doesn’t go so far as to be actually accused in court of committing a shameful felony is considered enough of a mensch to lead the Jewish state.

No, since the public doesn’t want Labor, the public has to force Likud to throw out the bad and bring in the good, starting at the top. This is a time for fresh, honest faces, or at least people who aren’t mobbed up in the Likud Central Committee, to take over.

And there are plenty of prominent Likudniks who fit this description. Some have spoken out against criminality in the party, like Limor Livnat, Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan, and the retired Benny Begin. Many other leading figures, such as Meir Sheetrit, may not be known as scourges of corruption, but at least they’re known for being clean.

But if I think of the Likud politicians who have a serious chance of being chosen Sharon’s successor, who could be accepted as a strong national leader in this dangerous time and who is seen as a person of integrity, I come to Shaul Mofaz.

Not that I would vote for any Likudnik, but Mofaz would at least be an honorable choice for prime minister. There are others. We need somebody honorable to lead this country because Sharon has gone and dishonored it.

And Sharongate is just beginning, I’m afraid. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for people to get a bellyful of it. They have to realize that there’s a better way — that this scandal, like Watergate, contains the possibility of a cathartic, purging end.

Larry Derfner writes regularly for the Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.