Ever since Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who died Saturday, fell into a coma after suffering a stroke eight years ago, Israelis and Palestinians had been living in the subjunctive mood. “What if?” they asked themselves.
What if Mr. Sharon had remained at the head of his new and promising centrist party, Kadima? What if he had been able to follow through on his dramatic withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip the year before?
This “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005 was Israel’s first practical act of decolonization since Prime Minister Menachem Begin — like Mr. Sharon, from the Likud party — withdrew Israeli troops and settlers from the Sinai Peninsula following a treaty with Egypt. Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal was much more significant because it was intended to lead to a peaceable partition of the Holy Land itself.
To Mr. Begin, such ideas remained taboo until the end of his life. Mr. Sharon, too, had devoted much of his career to fighting the Palestinians and building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As many of those asking “what if” believed, only Mr. Sharon, aptly nicknamed “the bulldozer,” could have taken them down with such ease. No wonder many Israelis continue to pine for an alternate reality in which Mr. Sharon remains a vital presence.
Still, as we continue to ask “what if,” we must also recognize the ways that Mr. Sharon’s decisions a decade ago continue to shape Israeli politics.
For one thing, they have defined the terms of Israeli-Palestinian talks today. “We know what the issues are and the parameters,” the American secretary of state, John Kerry, recently declared. There’s no deal in sight yet, but there is a sense, among both Israelis and Palestinians, that America means business.
Any such speculation around Mr. Kerry’s efforts would have been unimaginable without Mr. Sharon’s efforts a decade earlier. Mr. Kerry’s “issues and the parameters” are the very same that Mr. Sharon promoted during his premiership, in particular his acceptance of a deal enabling Israel to annex the large blocs of settlements close to the West Bank border in exchange for land now inside Israel.
“In light of new realities on the ground,” President George W. Bush wrote in a historic 2004 letter to Mr. Sharon, “including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
The formula in the letter, long haggled over with Israeli diplomats before publication, was now American policy. Following Israel’s lead, it envisioned land swaps, with the Israelis keeping the large settlement blocs near the old border. Swapping land meant ceding land, and this was no less than heresy in pristine Likud doctrine.
But Mr. Sharon had made his choice, and not reluctantly. He wanted the blocs-plus-swaps scenario to be the preferred, pragmatic policy not only of the Israeli left and center, which were steadily sliding in his direction, but also of the rightist-religious coalition, which he had been vigorously involved in setting up.
Today, apart from the hardest core of settlers, their rabbis and their politician-supporters within the Likud, that consensus has indeed emerged — and makes the negotiations possible under another Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
This was not a sudden whim on Mr. Sharon’s part. The first significant indicator that he was finally maturing came soon after his election as prime minister, in 2001, with his relatively restrained use of the army and air force during the second intifada. His critics feared that the hawkish Mr. Sharon would send the army in full force against Palestinian terrorist groups, causing a blood bath in the West Bank.
It did not happen. “Restraint is strength,” he proclaimed, with a decisiveness that harked back to his role during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when he led his division in a hard drive across the Suez Canal. Many officers and men who had no prior loyalty to him concluded that without his calm, steadfast command there would likely have been no Israeli crossing that October, nor ever.
But where did the “restraint” come from? Was it an upshot of his generalship during the 1982-1983 Lebanon War, including standing by while Christian militias slaughtered Palestinian and Lebanese Shiites, which brought obloquy on Israel, and especially on him? Perhaps: Despite his hard-boiled image, after weeks of war, it was hard for him to look into the eyes of bereaved Israeli parents of soldiers who were killed in Lebanon and persuade them their sacrifice was justified.
As prime minister, Mr. Sharon began using buzzwords like “occupation” — once the sole province of the peace movement — in his speeches explaining Israel’s strategic interest in Palestinian independence. Likud members feared that his secession from the party was imminent. They were right.
Above all, Mr. Sharon’s resounding legacy is his confrontation with the settlers in Gaza who refused to leave in 2005, including many from the West Bank who infiltrated the Gaza settlements to “defend” them. The disengagement was sad for the individual settler family, but on the national plane it was an anticlimax, thanks to Mr. Sharon’s determination to neutralize the settlers — until recently his most loyal political allies.
Mr. Sharon had them forcibly removed, demonstrating that the government of a sovereign, democratic state had a monopoly on armed power over its citizenry.
I had the opportunity to ask him, before the disengagement, if he would go to Gaza himself and take command if the operation got bogged down. “You worry too much,” was his self-assured answer, which turned out to be fully vindicated.
David Landau, the former editor in chief of Haaretz, is the author of Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon.