Imagine the likelihood of thousands of American students, intellectuals, and Hollywood celebrities marching in support of George W. Bush, and you will begin to appreciate the marvel of the Israeli leftists now rallying around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Reviled for engineering the Lebanon war, for masterminding the settlement movement, for opposing every attempt at reconciliation with the Palestinians, and as the personification of Israeli militarism and anti-Arab racism, Sharon today is viewed by many leftists as the settlers' bete noire and Israel's foremost champion of peace. While Jerusalem's Zion Square was crowded in 1995 with rightists cheering Sharon's commitment to Greater Israel, Tel Aviv's Rabin Square has recently been the site of rallies of thousands of leftists, who have applauded the prime minister's decision to evacuate Gaza and negotiate with the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon's transformation from warrior to peacemaker, making the Gaza withdrawal his personal crusade, has shocked the Israeli left, but many right-wing Israelis long anticipated that change. Raised in a secular Labor environment, Sharon was never nurtured on religious or conservative ideology, and, for all his opposition to a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders, he repeatedly conceded territories captured in the Six Day War. And, when his policies no longer enjoy public support, Sharon, unlike true rightists, pays no mind to the will of the people--a tendency historically displayed by members of Israel's socialist left. Sharon, rightists insist, is actually a Mapainik.


Though virtually unknown outside the Jewish state, the term Mapainik is part of the Israeli lexicon as much as Dixiecrat was once part of the U.S. lexicon--a code word laden with political and cultural assumptions. Mapai is a Hebrew acronym for the Israel Workers Party, the dominant Zionist movement in pre-Israel Palestine and the ruling political party for the first decades after Israel's independence.

Though founded only in 1930, Mapai embodied the values of the second and third aliyot, or waves of Zionist immigration to Palestine, between 1903 and 1923. This was the generation that produced the socialist moshav and the communist kibbutz, which replaced Judaism with the secular religion of labor. Among the principles of this new faith was an unequivocal devotion to the land of Israel, a belief in the power of that soil to redeem the Jewish hands that worked it. Not pacifists, the pioneers shied neither from defending their farms from Arab attacks nor from the thought of someday fighting for statehood. But Mapai members were also renowned for their pragmatism, for knowing when to compromise and consolidate their gains while hoping to expand them in the future.

The Mapai ethos was already discernible in 1925, when the Zionist movement accepted Great Britain's decision to exclude Transjordan from the area promised to the Jews under its Palestine Mandate. But it was not until Britain abandoned Zionism altogether, on the eve of World War II, that Mapai-style Zionism became dominant, under the leadership of the Mapainik par excellence, David Ben-Gurion. After Britain issued the so-called White Paper curtailing Jewish immigration into Palestine, Ben-Gurion took the middle ground, vowing to fight the White Paper as if there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper. Again, in 1947, when the United Nations partitioned Palestine, Ben-Gurion argued that the Jews should take any state they were offered and worry about its borders later. During the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion indeed broadened those borders, but he ordered the army to stop short of conquering the West Bank and Gaza.

Contesting the Mapainiks' near-monopoly over Zionist politics were the Revisionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky and his disciple, Menachem Begin. In contrast to the mostly rural and irreligious Labor Zionists, Revisionists tended to be urban, capitalistic, and respectful of religious tradition. They were also imbued with a vision of a Jewish state in all of the biblical Land of Israel--from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea--and much less flexible diplomatically. They rejected Transjordan's detachment from Palestine, and, in World War II, they fought both Britain and the White Paper. Begin never reconciled himself to the loss of the West Bank and Gaza, and, with their capture in 1967, Begin urged that both be settled by Jews.


Born in 1928 on a moshav to veterans of the second aliya, Ariel Sharon was a natural Mapainik. He participated in the Labor youth movement and served in military units closely associated with Mapai. He avoided any contact with Revisionist underground groups during the struggle for independence and later shunned Begin's political party, Herut. In fact, Sharon stayed clear of politics entirely until his retirement from the army in 1973, when he briefly joined the centrist Liberal faction before returning to the army to serve in the Yom Kippur War. Subsequently, Sharon became the chief military adviser to Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and, in that capacity, helped facilitate Israeli army pullbacks in Sinai and the Golan Heights--the first Israeli concessions of territories taken in 1967.

Sharon formed his own party, Shlomtzion, in 1977, and personally drafted its platform. Not only would Israel forfeit territories in order to achieve peace, Sharon wrote, but it would also negotiate with any Palestinian organization--presumably including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)--willing to recognize the Jewish state. Sharon later said he formed his own party, rather than simply joining Labor, the successor to Mapai, because he was disgusted with the cronyism in Labor. Still, following his pragmatic Mapai instincts, Sharon initially tried to have Shlomtzion form a joint list with Labor. After Labor refused, Sharon approached the centrist Shinui. When they, too, refused, Sharon revised his platform along more right-wing principles, declared his admiration for Begin's commitment to Greater Israel, and approached Herut. Begin embraced Sharon and, together with other factions, they formed the Likud, which then dealt Labor its first national defeat.

Though a latecomer to conservative politics, Sharon outflanked Begin to the right. As agriculture minister, he pushed through the construction of dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. During peace talks with the Egyptians in 1979, Sharon vowed that Israel would never concede its historic homeland. Yet, during those same talks, Sharon signaled his support for returning all of the territory Israel had captured from Egypt. In April 1982, the last Israeli settlers were evicted from Sinai on the order of Ariel Sharon.

By talking right but acting pragmatically, Sharon was adhering to the classic Mapainik tradition. Yet, in addition to its distinctive stands on territorial and security issues, that heritage also had a peculiar relationship with democracy. In contrast to Revisionists and Likudniks, who traced their intellectual roots back to nineteenth-century Central European liberalism, Mapai's founders came from the revolutionary turmoil of turn-of-the-century Russia, with its preference for proletarian dictatorships. In Israel, the nonreligious right has always been the champion of individual freedoms and the rule of law, while leftist leaders were notorious for pushing through their personal agendas, irrespective of democratic norms. The young Ben-Gurion, who modeled himself on Lenin, rejected the liberal constitution proposed by Herut shortly after independence. He waged a war against Egypt in 1956 without so much as informing the Knesset.

In his disavowal of democratic institutions, Sharon is much less a Likudnik than a Mapainik. Several ministers insinuated that he executed Israel's ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon almost unilaterally, without fully consulting the cabinet. Similarly, Sharon was accused of singlehandedly allocating vast sums for the construction of roads and settlements in the territories. And today, Sharon is once again revealing his Mapainik relationship with democracy. His decision to disengage from Gaza is based on the practical realization that the majority of Israelis are no longer willing to defend the settlements there and that Israel's occupation of the Strip only strengthens Palestinian demands for the creation of a binational Arab-Jewish state. Evacuating Gaza also enables Sharon to test the willingness and ability of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on terrorism before Israel proceeds to negotiate the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem--all policies unacceptable to true Likudniks like Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu, who could be pragmatic under U.S. pressure but would never give up on the idea of a Greater Israel.

Were he in power today, Ben-Gurion would have done exactly the same as Sharon. Ben-Gurion also would not have let opponents in his own party, or in society at large, stand in his way. Sharon, too, has trampled over detractors--first by inviting a Likud referendum on disengagement, then by ignoring its results when he lost. He has since rejected all suggestions of holding a national plebiscite on withdrawal. In fact, Sharon is proceeding with disengagement while enjoying a majority of only two votes in the Knesset, both of which he purchased from ultra-Orthodox parties by agreeing to fund their religious schools.

Sharon insists that all his decisions are justified by the mandate voters gave him in 2001. But those ballots were cast for a candidate who specifically negated the idea of unilateral withdrawal and who lovingly referred to the Gaza settlements as "our home." Indeed, Sharon's autocratic actions have spurred a large-scale defection of Likud members from the center to the extreme right, with some even calling for violent disobedience against the withdrawal.

Sharon has also thickened his coalition with members of Labor, the party that emerged from Mapai after its dissolution in 1968 but that still lays claim to its legacy. Apart from its name, though, today's Labor has little in common with its predecessor. Over the past 20 years, Labor has steadily abandoned its commitment to preserve the Land of Israel and promote the interests of Israeli workers. The same Rabin who ran for prime minister in 1992, rejecting negotiations with the PLO and concessions of vital areas of the West Bank and Gaza, signed a treaty the next year with Arafat laying the foundations of a future Palestinian state in virtually all of the territories. The same Shimon Peres who ran for prime minister in 1981 championing the rights of workers, surrounded by red socialist flags, ran again in 1996 with TV ads flashing pictures of McDonald's and SUVs.

Today, facing mounting pressures for a one-state solution and persistent threats from Palestinian terrorism, Israel surely needs the hard-nosed realism of Ben-Gurion. Israel must never return to the unworkable borders of 1967 or negotiate under fire, but neither can it afford to absorb millions of Palestinians and tip its demographic balance toward binationalism. At the same time, confronting the danger of severe internal schisms--perhaps even violence between settlers and the soldiers ordered to evict them--Israel also needs a Begin. Democracy, whether in the form of a national referendum on disengagement or elections, is essential to limiting the trauma of removing thousands of Israelis from their homes. To preserve Israel's integrity and security, to safeguard its society, Ariel Sharon must be not only the last Mapainik, but the last Likudnik as well. 

Michael B. Oren is a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. This article originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.