Jerusalem–Ariel Sharon stood astride our political scene like a colossus. Though he may survive the major stroke that felled him, in national terms we can only speak of him in past tense, since his return to power is inconceivable. But so was his rise.
If someone had predicted in the summer of 2000, when Yasser Arafat, Bill Clinton, and Ehud Barak were huddling at Camp David, that Ariel Sharon would be prime minister, he would have been laughed at. Sharon was a pariah, a gadfly considered to be on the right of Binyamin Netanyahu, who himself was in the political wilderness.
Thanks, ironically, to Arafat–his nemesis whose hand he was proud never to have shaken–Sharon was elected a few months later in a landslide as the man who would crush a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. It took time, but he succeeded, despite the “there is no military answer to terror” that occasionally even came from Israeli defense ministers.
With this victory, he could have coasted along–despite a simmering legal scandal–slowly beating into Western leaders the notion that terror must be fully conquered before negotiations begin. But he feared that military success would only translate into diplomatic weakness, since Israel had no hope of convincing the world, even after years of brutal Palestinian assaults, that the blame for perpetuating the conflict lay on Palestinian shoulders.
Unrecognized by the world, a supreme irony had emerged: Israel desired a Palestinian state more than Yasser Arafat, who had not only turned one down, but launched a war rather than accept it. An Israeli consensus had, when Arafat launched his war in late 2000, concluded that the Palestinian leadership would rather forgo a state than give up the quest for Israel’s destruction. But neither the Israeli willingness to trade a state for peace, nor the Palestinian refusal to accept that state, had been fully integrated into the international diplomatic landscape.
This remained true even after 9/11 and President George Bush’s June 2002 speech effectively calling for Arafat’s removal. The U.S. began to support Israel’s right to self-defense, rather than speaking of a “cycle of violence” and calling for restraint by “both sides.” But even the Bush administration would not make the paradigm shift from pretending that blame for the conflict spread neatly between Israeli settlements and Palestinian terrorism, to shining the spotlight on the conflict’s real root cause, the jihad to destroy Israel.
Sharon attempted to cut through this Gordian knot by shocking the world out of its refusal to recognize Israel’s readiness for peace and its corollary, that the Palestinian jihad had become the true obstacle to Palestinian statehood. As the chief architect of the settlement enterprise, he was in a unique position to embody the dramatic Israeli evolution from seeing a Palestinian state as an existential threat to something closer to a necessity to preserve the nation’s Jewish and democratic character.
Sharon’s incapacitation deprives our new national strategy of its leader, but does not eliminate the constituency that strategy built. The new party Sharon founded, Kadima–after he failed to persuade another party he founded, the Likud, to adopt his path–was poised to become Israel’s leading party. Kadima has attracted a number of senior politicians from the Likud and Labor. If Sharon’s heirs minimize infighting among themselves, they are likely to garner fewer votes than they would have under their fallen leader, but still become a major, and perhaps the largest party.
In any case, the constituency for Sharon’s legacy–fighting terrorism while remaining open to major concessions for true peace–will not disappear, and will be reflected in whatever constellation of parties emerges. Ehud Olmert, the finance minister and former mayor of Jerusalem who became Sharon’s alter-ego, is now acting prime minister.
Olmert is a talented politician, and may be able to convey the right combination of strength and humility that the situation demands. It is hard to imagine, however, his attaining the gravitas Sharon achieved in his six decades of service, spanning the life of the state, and culminating in decisions that changed history.
–Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post and author of Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle and the World After 9/11.