In the Shadow of Sharon

Benny Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel (NEW YORK TIMES, 06/01/06):

IT is too early to assess Ariel Sharon’s legacy. To be sure, he will be remembered as one of Israel’s great field commanders, the wily, bulldozing general who cracked the Egyptian bastion at Um Katef-Abu Awgeila in 1967 and led the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, turning the tables in the Yom Kippur War. With greater ambiguity, he will go down as the defense minister who orchestrated the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that, paradoxically, set Yasir Arafat on the road to Oslo and (however insincerely) peace with Israel.

Mr. Sharon will also be known as the chief architect of the Likud Party’s settlement drive in the occupied territories. His defeat, as prime minister, of the second Palestinian intifada will doubtless be carefully studied, once the hysteria and hype die down, as a model of a relatively clean, successful counterinsurgency.

But that is for the future. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharon’s stroke has plunged Israel and the region into deep confusion.

Just a few days ago, there were a handful of certainties. All the polls indicated that in the coming Israeli general elections, scheduled for late March, Mr. Sharon’s new Kadima Party would win handily, reinstalling him in the premiership. It was not clear how large a mandate he would enjoy or who would be his coalition partners. But a Sharon-led Israel was a certainty.

Another certainty was that his next term in office would be shadowed by the corruption investigation and charges that have already forced the resignation of his son, Omri Sharon, from the Knesset. But again, this scandal was not expected to be a coalition- or career-breaker: Israeli society has become too jaded, or simply faces too many existential problems, to give much weight to personal miscreancy.

Most important, there was a vague certainty that there would be further steps toward a pacification of Israel-Palestine and a separation of its two warring tribes into two relatively homogeneous states. Mr. Sharon had shown the way, courageously, remorselessly, six months ago with the uprooting of the Jewish settlements and the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the Gaza Strip. And he had shown the way, in defiance of often absurd and mendacious criticism by the Palestinians and their supporters, by pushing forward with the construction of the barrier – overwhelmingly a fence, not a wall – between the Arab West Bank and (Jewish) Israel more or less along the 1967 Green Line.

Many expected, and some feared, that Mr. Sharon would continue with such unilateral steps to separate the two peoples and physically consolidate two separate states. Unilateral, because he believed (as I do) that there was and is no viable Palestinian peace partner. The Palestinian national movement, he believed, still, in the deepest, immutable recesses of its heart, aspires to Israel’s destruction and replacement by an Arab-majority state, a “one-state solution.” That aspiration is why Yasir Arafat rejected the two-state compromise proposed by Mr. Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak, and President Bill Clinton in 2000 and it is why, from the militant Islamic members of Hamas through the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian national movement refuses to give up the “right of return” of the refugees, the demographic battering ram with which it hopes, ultimately, to bring Israel down.

Now, hopes for further daring steps like a unilateral pullout from parts of the West Bank have been dashed. What successor, however peace-minded, will have the political will or ability to do something so bold and politically problematic? It is profoundly unclear who will win the coming elections and with what sort of mandate: Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister who is Mr. Sharon’s likely successor as head of the new Kadima list (a party without institutions or structure and a leadership composed of Shimon Peres, the former Labor Party leader, and former Likud stalwarts); Amir Peretz, the new blue-collar chief of the Labor Party; or Benjamin Netanyahu, the resurrected head of the truncated Likud?

What is likely is that there will be no clear mandate for any party or leader. Moreover, none of Mr. Sharon’s probable successors to the premiership is made of that leadership stuff that ultimately endeared him to the majority of Israelis.
One certainty remains. Israel, and especially and paradoxically, its large moderate left and center, is in the grip of a great sadness. Those opposed to peace, in the slums of Rafah and the Jewish settlement compound of downtown Hebron, can be expected to rejoice (as they did when Mr. Sharon suffered his small first stroke, on Dec. 18 ).

The Islamic fundamentalists and the so-called Palestinian secularists who view Israel as a cancer and seek its destruction will honk their horns and hand out candy to the cruelly misled children of Gaza; and those Jews who are unwilling to give up the dream of Greater Israel and, perhaps, of ridding this land of its Arab usurpers, will offer thanks to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

There will also be little sadness at Mr. Sharon’s passing among those Israelis and their Diaspora supporters who have long demonized Mr. Sharon and Israel and who long ago gave up any hope or desire for a lasting Jewish state, and believe, or pretend to believe, that Jews and Arabs can live together like a bunch of mindless lambs in equality and under one political roof.

But the solid center and left of Jewish Israel, the country’s majority, who want to trade land for peace and reach a stable two-state solution, are tuning into their televisions this day with heavy hearts. They realize that the best hope for peace, that most unlikely of peacemakers, is exiting the stage and that a vista of turmoil and uncertainty has opened up. To be sure, Israel’s political structure remains solid and reassuring. But at this bewildering moment, for those interested in progress in the peace process, there is little reason for hope.