The Head Heeb


Bring back Flatto-Sharon TO THE POLITICAL scene

In Ha'aretz, Uzi Benziman compares the case of Naomi Blumenthal, sacked from her ministerial post by Ariel Sharon for refusing to cooperate with the Likud corruption investigation, with that of Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. The difference, according to Benziman, is that Hanegbi is both more blatant about his corruption and carries it out on a larger scale:

Blumenthal's case is small fry compared to other scandals arising out of the miasma of the Likud Central Committee. Blumenthal's name has not been linked to the criminal underworld, which gives her an advantage compared to a few other candidates who snared secure spots on Likud's election list. There is no suspicion that Blumenthal aspired to sit with Israel's 119 other legislators so that she could represent shady interests; and this cannot be said about a few of the others on the Likud list.

For the first time in the history of the state, there is evidence suggesting that some Trojan horses are running for the Knesset so they can slip into the corridors of power and promote dubious, if not criminal, interests.

"For the first time in the history of the state?" There can be no denying that Likud is at the center of a large and spreading corruption scandal, but back-channel connections between organized crime and the Israeli right are nothing new. There is evidence that Russian criminal gangs were actively involved in selecting the Yisrael Ba'aliya candidate list in the 1999 election. If you go back in the files, you'll also find that the Shimron Commission, which investigated organized crime in Israel during the late 1970s, found evidence that Rehavam Ze'evi, the recently assassinated Tourism Minister and far-right leading light, had underworld connections. (To be fair, Ze'evi was associated with Avoda at the time. Corruption isn't only a concern of the right.)

And then there was Shmuel Flatto-Sharon.

Flatto-Sharon was something truly unique in Israeli politics. A Polish-born young man who grew up in France and boasted of his support for Gush Emunim and friendship with the legendary Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, Flatto-Sharon fled to Israel in 1976 after being indicted on charges of defrauding French companies. He resolved to avoid extradition by a hitherto untested method - running for the Knesset and obtaining parliamentary immunity. In the 1977 election, Flatto-Sharon - who hardly spoke a word of Hebrew and had to read his stump speeches from a card - threw his hat into the ring and campaigned openly on a platform of avoiding extradition to France.

His campaign plank also included an eclectic measure of right- wing populism, solidarity between Israelis and the Jewish diaspora, and good old-fashioned Likud-primary-style vote-buying. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Flatto-Sharon promised to pay anyone who voted for him. 

In any other year, Flatto-Sharon would probably have had about as much chance of being elected as the Men's Rights in the Family party does in the current campaign, but Israeli politics were strange in 1977. Then, as now, the political scene was affected by war - the Yom Kippur War, and the way the Avoda government was caught unprepared. This was the year that Avoda's 30-year hegemony over Israeli politics would be broken, and there was room for other parties to pick up the pieces. At the same time, anti-French sentiment was riding high in Israel because France had refused - using a rather flimsy excuse - to extradite Abu Daoud, who was wanted by Israel in the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich. The voters, seeing the opportunity to give France one in the eye, elected Flatto-Sharon to office, giving him twice as many votes as civil-liberties activist Shulamit Aloni. He subsequently joined Menachem Begin's ruling coalition, and one of the first votes he cast was in favor of a 1978 law that prohibited the extradition of Israeli citizens.

Flatto-Sharon served in the Knesset for approximately five years. He lost bids for re-election in 1981 and 1984.  However, he was never returned to France. 

It's easy to dismiss Flatto-Sharon as a joke, and - well, he was. It's still possible to insult a member of Knesset with Flatto-Sharon's name, as when the possibility of Ahmed Tibi serving on the Knesset committee on defense was compared to Flatto-Sharon serving on the Committee for Constitution, Law and Jurisprudence. Despite being a political joke, though, Flatto-Sharon had a flamboyant - and occasionally successful - career as a legislator. His demimonde connections and ability as a wheeler- dealer made it possible for him to successfully negotiate the return of several Israeli prisoners of war in exchange for captured terrorists. He also recruited 25 Israeli combat veterans to protect French and Belgian synagogues, which were undergoing a wave of attacks much like those taking place now, and obtained housing for homeless Israeli squatters in Jerusalem. He was a crook, but one who apparently gave a damn - which, sadly, makes him a better class of crook than many of those who now serve on the Likud Central Committee.

Flatto-Sharon is, in many ways, the bad and good things about the modern Likud Party writ large - corruption, vote-buying, right-wing anti-elitist populism, support for West Bank settlements and active opposition to anti-Semitism worldwide. (Well, all the bad things and one of the good things.) Maybe it's time to think of bringing him back to the political arena. He's currently available - i.e., as a renowned media star, he could relate to Arafat or someone similar on a truly personal level. It may be that a wheeler-dealer like Flatto-Sharon could forge a compromise in the West Bank where the diplomats could not - or, failing that, make an offer that Arafat or Abu Mazen can't refuse.

Maybe what Likud needs now is not Sharon but Flatto-Sharon.