It was more then an hour after midnight when Benjamin Netanyahu climbed to the podium Monday to claim victory. So familiar, and yet so different: Netanyahu is once again head of the Likud Party. He is no longer the promising young representative of the next generation of Israeli leaders, but rather the already worn-out representative of the greatest failure of Israeli politics in the last decade: that of the new generation. First Netanyahu and then the Labor Party's Ehud Barak were so disappointing, such juvenile prime ministers that they sent Israeli voters rushing back to older, more experienced leaders—the men who were already there when the state of Israel was born.
"Netanyahu is prone to panic. He panics and loses his cool—and such a person cannot lead a country," Sharon said a couple of weeks ago. The public agrees. If Ariel Sharon is not the next leader, a pollster asked, who do you think is the best candidate to replace him? No candidate got more than 20 percent—and the most favored was 82-year-old Shimon Peres, who is no longer in the running. Netanyahu is still popular with hard-core Likud members, but Barak, Labor's most promising young leader a decade ago, got less then 10 percent.
Voters had to face this appalling lack of leadership three days ago, when Sharon, 77, was hurried to the hospital suffering from a mild stroke. "It was a moment reminiscent of the long evening in 1995," when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, wrote Ha'aretz political analyst Yossi Verter. "The dark vehicles parked near the hospital, the security guards and the police officers holding their guns near the entrance, the family members arriving." But it was also different in '95, because Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, was there to take charge—and a political rival, Netanyahu, was already waiting for the right time to make his move. But this week, there was no natural successor in sight. Luckily, Sharon proved to be healthy enough to stick around, but the "what if" question remained unanswered. As is another question: Where have all the leaders gone?
Sharon was joking with his doctors, the spin-masters were quick to announce, calming the nation. It's the kind of joke American voters heard from Ronald Reagan at the famous second 1984 debate with Walter Mondale: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Reagan was 73 then—nearly five years younger then Sharon. The second part of Reagan's answer is less quotable, but just as revealing: "I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don't know which, that said if it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state." Sharon has exemplified this over the last five years.
That's why Sharon's new party, Kadima, is so popular, even though it has no grass-roots activists, no organization, no history—and no future. It's a one-man, one-time show enabling the public to avoid the crucial leadership issue. "If Sharon is not capable of running," said someone interviewed by Israeli radio, "this in itself will not make Netanyahu or [Labor leader Amir] Peretz good candidates." Forty-two percent of Labor voters—Peretz voters—when asked which candidate they would prefer if it were necessary to decide whether Israel should attack nuclear sites in Iran, chose Sharon. Peretz was picked by only 17 percent. When asked who is more suited to be prime minister, 15 percent said Peretz, 43 percent Sharon.
As a young officer, Sharon was the protégé of the founding father of Israel, David Ben Gurion, a dictatorial, monarchial leader. Sharon admired him, and still does. And to some extent, Sharon is now becoming Ben Gurion's true political successor, holding the torch of the founding generation for a little longer, before nature makes it impossible to keep it burning.
And then, when the shift to a younger generation is no longer a luxury, it's not yet clear where the leaders will come from. The military, which was once a reliable source, lost steam and glory; professional politicians aren't popular in Israel; academics even less so; and businessmen tend to stay out of public life. It's customary for countries to go through a crisis when the first generation is gone (think Martin Van Buren)—and it's also customary for great politicians to leave without suitable successors, as political survival is their main concern (think Teddy Roosevelt).
But for Sharon, the undisputed, unchallenged man in charge today, this might be the greatest challenge of his next, last, term. He can be elected again and again, as was Franklin Roosevelt, until it's over—and then he might get a Truman to succeed him—but only if he is very lucky, or smart enough to start looking for the right replacement while he's still in power. "There's an old joke," Truman said, "that the vice president's principal chore is to get up in the morning and ask how the president is feeling." Sharon needs to find someone who will ask this question, someone who will not get scared when the day comes that the answer is "not very well."