The stroke that felled Ariel Sharon last week ended one of the most compelling dramas now unfolding on the world stage, right in the middle of the second act. In disengaging from Gaza, Sharon had just orchestrated a diplomatic and military maneuver of incomparable complexity and daring, whose effect was to reshuffle the parameters of Israeli-Palestinian relations and open the way for a new chapter in Israeli and Middle East history. He was gearing up to begin writing his draft of that next chapter when he was cut down.
Precisely because his disengagement opened up endless possibilities — and because he was a politician who played his cards close to his capacious chest — it was hard to tell what he meant to do next. Now we may never know.
The seminal importance of Sharon’s accomplishment is reflected in the international outpouring of emotion that greeted his health crisis. Politicians and editorialists from California to Cairo to Canberra — with a few notable exceptions in places like Tehran — issued heartfelt prayers for the man they called Israel’s father figure, its indomitable warrior for peace, the last of its great founding figures. It was as though the Jewish state were losing another Yitzhak Rabin, 10 years after the first.
But Sharon was no Rabin. For all the florid tributes this week, he did not tower like a beacon over a half-century of Israel’s history. Through most of his long career he was a figure of enormous controversy, more hated and feared than loved, even among his fellow Israelis. Despite his brilliance as a military field commander, his impulsiveness, disdain for authority and disregard for the human costs of his actions nearly got him booted from the army time and again — notably in 1954, 1956 and 1964. He finally quit the service in 1972 because his fellow generals would not have him as their chief, returning only for a brief but historic stint the next year in the Yom Kippur War.
After entering, quitting and re-entering politics in the 1970s, he presided over the worst decision in Israeli military-diplomatic history, the 1982 Lebanon invasion, with its grisly aftermath. He emerged from the war formally judged — by an Israeli state commission — to be an accessory to a war crime. He spent the next 15 years as a political provocateur and champion of the misguided settlement movement. When he took the reins of the Likud party from the defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999, he was a 71-year-old caretaker, a marginal figure at the end of a checkered career. If Netanyahu had returned to politics a year later, as widely expected, that is how Sharon would be remembered.
But Netanyahu did not return. In December 2000, in an astounding failure of nerve, he dropped what appeared to be a surefire bid to reclaim the Likud and challenge the discredited Ehud Barak, insisting the Knesset’s fissures made Israel ungovernable. Instead, Sharon faced Barak and won. And thus began the astonishing, transformative second act.
When Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001, we argued on this page that he was “a man of parts, and some of them tilt toward moderation and pragmatism.” We counseled patience and hoped the job would show “his better nature.” We were right.
In his five years in office, Sharon became Israel’s essential man. At a moment of violence and despair, he saw what was necessary and did it. He pushed counter-terrorism to its limit. When he reached the limits of military power, he was able to recognize that fact and change course. He understood that the project he had championed for decades, the settlement movement, was now an impediment to Israeli security. He saw that history had given him a unique opportunity to change Israel’s direction, and he seized it with both hands.
How Israel proceeds in the months ahead will depend on a great many factors, not all of them within Israel’s control. Sharon is celebrated as a champion of unilateralism, but the notion is overrated; nations, like individuals, can only play the cards they are dealt, and every action brings reactions. His true message, however, is a larger one: that Israel can and must separate from the Palestinians by withdrawing to clear, compact borders — not for the Palestinians’ sake but for Israel’s.
If Sharon’s earlier legacy had been a blind commitment to settlements and confrontation, his final legacy to Israel is the strength and vision to correct his own mistakes. Whatever else he did before, his final act is one of greatness.