Now, Forward

By Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem, and the Israel correspondent for the New Republic (THE WASHINGTON POST, 15/01/06):

When Ariel Sharon was hospitalized nearly two weeks ago, I found myself bereft. Like so many others here, I grieved for the most hated man in Israel who in the past five years had become the most beloved.

I grieved, too, for a nation that had just lost the only man it trusted to keep it safe. How could the general who taught the Israeli army never to leave its wounded on the battlefield abandon us now, with missiles from Gaza falling on Israeli towns and Iran about to go nuclear?

My love for Sharon was hardly a given. Indeed, until I voted for him in the 2001 elections that brought him to power, he represented, for me, the tendency for excess in our national character. He was one of the most heroic Israelis of a heroic generation, who had repeatedly helped save Israel on the battlefield; yet he had also led us into adventures that turned into disasters.

I immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1982, just as Sharon’s most ambitious initiative, the invasion of Lebanon, veered out of control with the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in Sabra and Shatilla. I found myself joining a tormented nation. For the first time, Israelis had not only failed to rally during war but were actually divided because of war. Sharon had jeopardized Israel’s greatest strategic asset: its ability to unite during crisis.

What changed for me, and for most Israelis starting in 2000, was, of course, the Palestinian terrorism war, which vindicated Sharon’s warnings over the years against empowering Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

By the time Sharon was elected in 2001, the Israeli majority had reached two conclusions about its conflict with the Palestinians. The first was that the left had been correct in warning against the illusion that Israel could occupy another people and still remain a worthy Jewish and democratic state. The second was that the right had been no less correct in warning against the illusion that Israel could make peace with an organization committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

With the fading away of the two ideologies that had determined Israeli politics for several decades — “greater Israel” on the right, and “peace now” on the left — the public found itself with an ideological hangover. Out of the wreckage of Israel’s dreams, Sharon fashioned a new political center: hard-line on security, flexible on territory. The emergence of this center marked the end of the era of our romantic politics, the politics of wishful thinking.

Sharon, though, did more than merely define a sensibility: He turned a mood into a policy. If we can’t occupy the Palestinians and we can’t make peace with them, he argued, the only option left for Israel was to determine its own borders. The result was last summer’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza — in effect, a withdrawal from the failed policies of the right and left.

The withdrawal lessened the threat of Jews becoming a demographic minority in their own country, even as it posed new challenges for keeping Israeli towns safe from Palestinian rocket attacks. Most of all, though, the withdrawal exposed the asymmetry of Israeli and Palestinian efforts for peace.

According to the American-initiated “road map” for resuming peace talks, the Palestinian Authority’s first step would be disarming terrorists, while Israel’s final step would be dismantling settlements. In Gaza, Sharon took Israel to the very end of the road map — a typical Sharon short cut. While the more intractable issue of West Bank settlements remain, Palestinian leaders, by contrast, haven’t even begun fulfilling their first road map responsibility.

The Gaza withdrawal confirmed Sharon as our great builder and destroyer, even of what he himself created. The withdrawal also confirmed that the man who once symbolized our excesses had become, in his old age, the measured leader that Israel needed in its most desperate time. The wise guy had become the wise elder.

When he entered office he realized that Israelis were desperate for Sharon the anti-terrorist warrior of the 1950s and ’60s, but not for Sharon the settlements builder of the 1970s and ’80s. And so he put aside one part of his biography in order to offer the nation, as a rallying point, another part. Though he continued to maintain that he’d been right all along to try to annex the West Bank, he abandoned the settlements project and focused on defeating terrorism.

As prime minister of a demoralized nation, Sharon reminded Israelis what they once knew: that there was no negotiating at the point of a gun and that the only way to deal with existential threat was with national resolve. But Sharon had also learned from his mistakes and, this time, understood the need for consensus, especially because a long-term war against terrorism requires the nation’s patience and fortitude.

Sharon restored consensus, in part, through uncharacteristic restraint, declining to unleash the Israeli army until he was certain that the left would back him. And so he patiently waited, even as buses and cafes were exploding. When he finally ordered the reinvasion of the West Bank following the Passover massacre in March 2002, a year after he took office, some army reservist units reported more than 100 percent response: Even some people who hadn’t been called showed up anyway. It was the antithesis of the Lebanon war, when antiwar demonstrators protested in Tel Aviv while soldiers were fighting at the front.

Sharon maintained that consensus in the terrorism war by resisting right-wing demands to employ the full force of Israeli power against the Palestinians — like bombing neighborhoods where terrorists hid, as the United States did in Iraq when it tried to target Saddam Hussein. The provocation was enormous. Israel, after all, had offered to end the occupation, create a Palestinian state and redivide Jerusalem, and it received, as its counteroffer, four years of suicide bombings. Given the overwhelming superiority of Israeli military power, the relatively low Palestinian civilian causality rate kept the Israeli public comfortable with the army’s basic moral health. That’s one reason why an Israeli draft resistance movement never drew more than a few score supporters.

In recent months, Sharon initiated two unilateral moves, the first strategic, the second political. Withdrawing from Gaza was likely to be the first phase of a Sharon plan to establish Israel’s de facto borders. And when he withdrew several months later from the Likud and founded the centrist party Kadima, he was attempting to re-create Israel’s political system.

Both processes required Sharon’s continued guidance. Yet he has left without telling us what was supposed to happen next in the West Bank, given the absence of a credible Palestinian partner for peace. Do we risk another unilateral withdrawal, even though that could mean missile attacks on greater Tel Aviv? Or do we remain in the territories for now, even though Palestinians are turning toward their most fanatical political groups?

So too, Sharon left before transforming Kadima into an effective alternative to the Likud. Indeed, this default party of government isn’t yet quite a party. There are no members, no institutions, not even a list of parliamentary candidates. That list exists, but it is locked in Sharon’s brain.

And so that too is why Israelis grieve: We are caught in Sharon’s incomplete historic shift, even as the threats around us grow. Can we, who came after Israel’s founders, manage without them?

In the 1990s, two prime ministers emerged from the post-founders’ generation. Both failed to win the country’s trust. Binyamin Netanyahu lasted three years in office, Ehud Barak barely half that long. In desperation, the public turned to Sharon, last of the heroic generation, who had helped define nearly every military and political turning point, good and bad, in the nation’s history.

With Sharon’s passing from the scene, there is no father to turn to for protection. We’re on our own. Yet, because he has steered Israel away from the impassioned excesses he once embodied, his legacy is clear: on the military front, resolve against terrorism; on the political front, consensus in times of threat and a pragmatic approach that replaces the fantasy politics of the left and right.

After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 10 years ago, a slogan appeared at memorial gatherings: “In his death, he bequeathed us peace.” That hope turned out to be an illusion. Yet even as Sharon struggles for life, this much can be said with confidence: However unexpected, Ariel Sharon has bequeathed us sobriety.