Al-Ahram Weekly – 18 March 2004
Ariel Sharon, buffeted by recent revelations linking him to various corruption scandals, was beset by fresh woes this week as the Israeli media scented yet another dubious deal linked to the prime minister and opinion polls showed his popularity with voters plummeting.
The latest allegation came last week from the Ma’ariv newspaper, which reported that Sharon had once had business dealings with a relative of Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman apparently lured into a trap set by the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah in October 2000. They captured him after he went to Dubai to work out a plan to smuggle drugs into Israel.
Sharon pushed to secure a prisoner exchange with Hizbullah — against the wishes of many members of his cabinet and party — that eventually freed Tannenbaum six weeks ago. Several hundred Arab prisoners were released by Israel in return for Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers killed in Lebanon.
Several analysts pointed out that the deal both increased Hizbullah’s prestige and set an unfortunate precedent by suggesting that Israel was prepared to release prisoners in exchange for Israeli civilians. It effectively invited hostile groups to abduct Israelis abroad, they said.
Corruption scandals have been swirling around the prime minister for more than a year, alienating his coalition allies and even some within his own party. But until now there was little evidence that the allegations were denting his popularity with voters.
Last week a poll published in Israel’s biggest circulation newspaper Yediot Ahronot, however, showed the tide finally turning. For the first time since Sharon was elected prime minister three years ago, a majority of Israelis thought he should resign. Some 53 per cent of those surveyed said Sharon should quit, while 43 per cent wanted him to stay.
An even larger number — some 57 per cent — felt Sharon was not a trustworthy leader, up from 41 per cent last summer. Only 20 per cent thought him untrustworthy when he was first elected in February 2001.
The poll, suggesting that Sharon’s golden image is tarnishing, was taken before the latest revelations involving Tannenbaum. The fall in popularity is presumably the result of fallout from police investigations into Sharon’s links with businessman David Appel, who was recently charged with trying to bribe the prime minister and his son Gilad, among others, over a land deal on a Greek island.
There is also the dawning awareness that Sharon appears to have lost his sense of direction in managing the conflict with the Palestinians. His Gaza “disengagement” plan — flying in the face of his lifelong espoused doctrines — has confused and alienated voters and his own party.
But while Sharon pursued a policy of studied silence during the Appel investigations, the revelations about Tannenbaum forced him immediately to go on the offensive.
Last Wednesday Ma’ariv reported that Tannenbaum’s former father-in-law, Shimon Cohen, had marketed the products of Sharon’s huge farmstead in the Negev, Sycamore Ranch, in the 1970s. For a brief moment in the late 1970s, until the courts ruled the arrangement illegal, Cohen was also a trustee of the ranch, in an attempt by Sharon to avoid conflict of interest regulations during his term as agriculture minister.
Later on the day of the Ma’ariv report Sharon appeared in interviews with all the main TV channels claiming he was unaware that Tannenbaum was Cohen’s son-in-law and assuring viewers that he had had no dealings with Cohen for some two decades.
In his current predicament, it was high-risk strategy that quickly looked like it might backfire. Ma’ariv reported at the weekend that it had evidence Sharon had been at the centre of a legal battle in the early 1990s over land ownership claims next to his Sycamore Ranch that also involved Cohen.
The Globes business newspaper also said it had evidence that Sharon’s business dealings with Cohen lasted until at least 1992.
Sharon’s media offensive reflected his own sense that the Tannenbaum connection threatens his popularity far more than the Appel affair. In the Appel case, Sharon has cast himself as — with some success — an innocent caught up in the baffling and treacherous world of business.
Many voters appear to believe that if there was any wrongdoing by Sharon in what has come to be known as the “Greek island affair” it was mistakenly committed while he was pursuing the national interest in his capacity as prime minister.
But the deal to win Tannenbaum’s release looks different to many observers. Sharon is seen as having risked the national interest with a prisoner swap that may have been arranged to help an old family friend.
Tannenbaum, a colonel in the army reserves, is still being interrogated by the military, Shin Bet and the police, who want to know what secrets he may have divulged to Hizbullah during his three years of captivity. He has been undergoing a series of polygraph tests.
But it is the circumstances surrounding the prisoner swap and the restrained interrogation of Tannenbaum on his return that have prompted most speculation.
During the negotiations with Hizbullah, the Israeli government insisted on a media blackout on all aspects of the drug-dealing trip that led to Tannenbaum’s capture.
In the run-up to the swap, as Israeli public opinion needed softening up, there were stories — inaccurate, it turned out — of the dire conditions in which Tannenbaum was being held. It was even suggested that he had been tortured by having all his teeth extracted. Last week Sharon said that Germany had supplied the erroneous information, although German officials denied the claim.
In addition, several cabinet ministers planning to vote against the swap reportedly received phone calls pressuring them to change their minds. In the end, the exchange was agreed by the narrowest of margins.
Last week it was revealed that despite the evidence that Tannenbaum was arranging a drug deal when he was abducted, and unresolved suspicions that he may have left the country with the intention of selling state secrets, prosecutors have already agreed an immunity deal with him that should prevent his prosecution. The prime minister personally intervened, reports reveal, as Tannenbaum was being flown back to Israel, through his military secretary. He overrode an order from the head of Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, to have Tannenbaum arrested on the plane.
Added to all this is the fact that throughout the three years of his captivity, Tannenbaum’s family received the salary of a full colonel even though Tannenbaum was in the reserves and was on personal — and criminal — business when he was abducted. Such is the suspicion of Sharon’s true motives that one Likud minister was reported as speculating: “Was [Sharon] being blackmailed about something to do with the farm [in the Negev]?”
At the weekend the state comptroller announced that he would be investigating Sharon’s links to the Tannenbaum family. But whatever the outcome of the official investigations, it is looking as though for the Israeli public and the Likud Party Sharon is close to exceeding his shelf life.