WATCHING THE performance of Ariel Sharon's as the newly elected prime minister of Israel has set me thinking about another general who became his country's leader - Charles de Gaulle. The manner in which de Gaulle withdrew the French army from Algeria in 1962, conceded independence and brought the trauma of civil war to an end is sometimes quoted as an example of how, in certain crises, a special sort of authority is required. Only a politician who had been a soldier could prevail - though this is not an invariable rule, as Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, has just found out.
Of course De Gaulle was never responsible for anything like the massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1982. As Robert Fisk recently wrote: Sharon's name "is synonymous with butchery; with bloated corpses and disembowelled women and dead babies, with rape, pillage and murder". Nor did De Gaulle ever doing anything as politically provocative as Sharon's unnecessary visit to Islam's most holy sites in Jerusalem some months ago, which provoked the primitive war of attrition being waged by the Palestinians against Israel's armed might. But, like Sharon, De Gaulle did tend to crush his opponents at the polls.
Thus far in office, Sharon has been cautious. His victory speech was restrained. "True peace requires painful concessions on both sides... peace is costly to both sides, but all agreements will be based on security for all people in the region." He has remained calm in the face of an escalation of violence. He has doggedly worked to form a coalition government.
Prime ministers and presidents often create an excellent impression in the early weeks of office. To begin with, Tony Blair seemed imbued with almost magical gifts. He charmed legions of crusty businessmen into helping his administration. George Bush, too, has started impeccably, holding out a hand to the defeated Democrats, giving high office to Afro-Americans, acting firmly against Iraq. But then events crowd in, pressure relentlessly builds up, character faults reappear and, in Browning's famous line, it is "never glad confident morning again!"
De Gaulle's outstanding characteristic was that he had an absolutely steady and clear view of what were French interests, what was essential, and what could be let go. At bottom, he didn't believe the retention of Algeria was crucial to France's future. It was precisely this quality that Mao Tse-tung admired, telling a French visitor in 1970 that De Gaulle was the greatest statesman of his day because he had known when to say No and when to say Yes. He had resisted the Nazis in 1940 and he had yielded to the Algerians in 1962. Does Sharon have this same utterly realistic evaluation of priorities? And can he keep people guessing while he manoeuvres himself into a position of strength?
For De Gaulle was a general who had learnt the political art of making speeches whose ringing phrases concealed valuable ambiguity. Listeners could read into his statements what they desired. And because of his record they somehow trusted him. …