"Israel is like a bus," Shimon Peres once said, "the public wants to feel the steering wheel is in safe hands." Ariel Sharon's great accomplishment as prime minister was that sense of stability and authority he radiated to the public. During his five years in office, he turned himself into the central axis of Israeli politics, into the man who has no replacement. His election as prime minister in 2001, during the initial shock wave of the Palestinian intifada, restored calm all at once to a turbulent and disjointed government. Sharon's rich experience, the graceful resolve he demonstrated in pressure situations, and even his bodily girth convinced Israelis he was someone on whom they could rely. Added to that is the strong friendship with American president George W. Bush, who backed Sharon at times of harsh global criticism.
The sense that an experienced and responsible man was sitting in the national driver's seat launched Sharon to record heights of popularity, led him to a sweeping victory in the 2003 election and an unassailable lead in the polls leading up to the election in 2006. His indomitable status was maintained even as hundreds of Israelis were killed in Palestinian terror attacks and as the economy threatened to collapse, and even as he evacuated the settlers from Gush Katif toward the end of his career - a move that gained him unexpected international rejuvenation.
Sharon is descending from the stage and leaving a mixed legacy behind him. He spearheaded three primary initiatives: reoccupation of the West Bank cities and the imprisonment of Yasser Arafat in the Muqata; construction of the separation fence and evacuation of 25 settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. His success in evacuating the settlers without any internal rifts and practically without violence, was a shining example of national leadership, a model for any future successor.
Return from the political desertSharon was himself surprised by his abrupt return from the political desert, where he was considered a man of the past and a symbol of right-wing militancy, to the Prime Minister's Office. He spent his first year learning the job and understanding its limitations. Many observers wondered at the time if he had any plan or strategy to end the war with the Palestinians, or was merely offering an arsenal of tactical steps and tit-for-tat responses.
Only in the second year did he dare take the initiative, and launched the IDF into Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, at the height of the wave of suicide terror attacks in Israeli cities. The operation succeeded in stopping, or slowing down, the wave of terror, but failed to end the war. Arafat was weakened, but refused to surrender, even when Bush joined Sharon in calling for the replacement of the Palestinian leadership.
Operation Defensive Shield and the obsessive encirclement of Arafat in the Muqata compound were a natural follow-through to Sharon's power-oriented career in the army and in politics, in which several impressive accomplishments were notched up - beginning with the crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War - as well as dreadful disgraces, such as the raid in Qibya, the Mitla Pass battle in the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the Lebanon War. The main difference was Sharon's realization, once he assumed political leadership, that his administration depended on two factors: internal consensus and American support. Both slipped from his hands in 1982 and led to his downfall in Lebanon and his banishment to the political sidelines. When he finally got the yearned-for opportunity, he regularly consulted this "double compass" at home and in Washington.
Only after Sharon saw that the terror was continuing even after the large-scale operation in the West Bank, and that Israel faced both international isolation and economic crisis, did his big turnaround begin. The first step was his agreement to erect the separation fence, which he had at first vehemently opposed. Not withstanding his repeated denials and claims that the fence was "only another way" to fight terrorist attacks, Sharon fully understood that its construction would mark the future border of Israel and lead to withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
It is no wonder that he at first tried to transfer as much territory as possible to the Israeli side of the fence, and even wanted to build an eastern fence that would imprison the Palestinian population clustered in the central hills. Only after he came up against U.S. opposition and a hostile verdict handed down by the International Court in The Hague did Sharon take advantage of an Israeli High Court of Justice verdict to move the fence to a more logical route, one that went around the settlement blocs of Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion. The eastern fence was left out.
Facing down the settlersFrom the fence, Sharon moved during 2003 to acceptance of the road map, which leads to a Palestinian state, and for the first time declared that the occupation was bad for Israel, provoking furious responses within his party. And once the map process collapsed and terrorist attacks continued, he hit rock bottom in the Israeli public. His showing in the polls plummeted, Bush backed off, and the consensus on the war was shattered. Sharon began to look more like a fossilized leader who had lost his direction in mid-battle.
And then he picked himself up and dared to do what had struck fear into all his predecessors. He courageously faced down the settlers, his former political partners, and told them the time had come for them to fold up their tents. When he announced the disengagement, Sharon set a timetable of two years for its execution, which at first seemed an opening for possible evasiveness, but later was seen to be a responsible and judicious path.
Unlike Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, who believed in diplomatic surprises, Sharon gradually accustomed the Israeli public, the Palestinians and the international community to the idea. He defused the political land mines, prepared the army and police, amassed support and isolated the "orange" camp that opposed withdrawal. Only when the public opinion struggle was won did the forces set out to evacuate the residents of Neveh Dekalim, Kfar Darom, Netzarim and Kadim.
Sharon's diplomatic legacy rates demography higher than the topography in which he once believed. In his more recent pronouncements and speeches, he strived to bring Israel's control of the Palestinians to an end and to gather Israel into a new border, one that would be more internationally accepted and would include the "settlement blocs" and a security region in the Jordan Rift. His map of blocs included Hebron, Beit El and Ofra, the high ground overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport, and continued Israeli control of East Jerusalem and the Golan. This is much less than the minimum the Palestinians talk about, and there will be a need to evacuate tens of thousands of settlers from deep in the territories to reach even these lines.
Far from leftEven as he spoke of "painful concessions" and withdrawals, and even as he executed them, Sharon remained suspicious of Israel's neighbors, and faithful to the words of his mother Vera, who taught him: "Don't believe them." His signature line was "Let us not forget, we're talking about Arabs here." He reviled Arafat, derided Mahmoud Abbas, shunned Bashar Assad and did not succumb to Mubarak's wooing. As he saw it, the Arab world has not come to terms with the "inborn right" of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish state "in the cradle of its birth," and Israel was destined to face a prolonged and perhaps permanent conflict with its hostile environment.
The human rights of the Palestinians were of little interest to him even as he called for an end to the occupation. His harsh responses to terrorist attacks, his recurrent pledges to ease restrictions on the Palestinians, which were never realized, as well as his repeated avoidance of evacuating the settlement outposts, showed that even after his evacuation of the settlements, Sharon remained distant from the basic positions of the political left. It is no wonder that the most ardent supporters of the Palestinians in Israel and abroad continued to view him as a man of war and destruction, even after he had become the darling of the political center.
In his attitude toward the "world" outside the region, Sharon went through a transformation. In the past year, he grew close to Europe, which he had described in the past as hostile and anti-Semitic, and he recognized its ability to play a helpful role.
His visit last summer with French president Jacques Chirac and his appearance at the UN General Assembly in September, immediately after completion of the withdrawal from Gaza, gained him the approbation of leaders who once recoiled in disgust from him. In his speech at the UN, Sharon recognized for the first time the right of the Palestinians to statehood. Until then, he had always described the Palestinian state as a constraint, as a lack of choice, not as a recognized right.
As a politician, he demonstrated an astounding ability for control and maneuverability, ridiculing his eulogizers and showing that he was better at reading his rivals' intentions. His experience taught him that the victor is the one who holds tight on the bridge, that you have to know how to absorb the blows and let the enemy waste his ammunition before you counterattack.
He always made decisions at the last moment, but then he would stubbornly hold to them. In this manner he succeeded in getting the disengagement plan through the cabinet and the Knesset, around the "rebels" in his own party, until he got to the "big bang," and without sentiment dismantled the Likud - the party he established after leaving the army in 1973. In this way he crushed, time after time, his big rival, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Last political movesDismantlement of the Likud and establishment of Kadima, Sharon's last political moves, were characteristic of his political path: that of an extreme pragmatist who adopted the ideas of others, scorned ideology and believed that an alliance is acceptable if the need exists. He was not the first to market himself as representing the interests of the state, as the authorized agent of national interests facing the "politicians".
He loved the image of the soldier-farmer who came from the ranch to the Knesset cafeteria as the savior of his people. Like Yitzhak Shamir and Rabin, Sharon also turned rough-hewn verbal skills, ungainly rhetoric and cynical humor into assets of "authenticity." The public enthusiastically bought into the image, and disregarded the dark cloud of corruption that surrounded the prime minister and his family. The investigations and the suspicions of corruption that did not let up even after the Greek Island case was closed, and even the conviction of Sharon's son Omri of crimes committed during his father's campaign in the party primaries, could not crack the solid popularity of Ariel Sharon.
The problem in his approach was that it corrupted the political establishment and encouraged a culture of blind reverence for the leader, one on which Kadima relied, while turning its back on any argument about ideas and how to realize them. It looked like a tolerable price to pay for achieving national goals such as shaping the border and calming the winds of war, but it is difficult to sustain a ruling culture for any length of time.
Like Shamir in his day, Sharon excelled at running his office and working with the defense and civil bureaucracies. He listened to officers and officials and let them express themselves, even when he ignored their advice. When posts in the highest echelons of the defense and intelligence establishments opened up, he appointed his trusted associates to them.
Examples include Meir Dagan, who became director of the Mossad, Shaul Mofaz as defense minister, Dan Halutz as IDF chief of staff and Moshe Kaplinsky as his deputy. It was characteristic of Sharon: For years people were saying that a pilot should be appointed to head the IDF, and he carried out the revolution. And the tax reform, and the ouster from the government of the ultra-Orthodox and the turnaround in economic policy. Others talked and made proposals; he acted.
The 'national grandfather'In his public administration, Sharon demonstrated steely, disciplined restraint. He learned from his predecessors, who spoke endlessly on radio and responded to every trifle, and he spoke only after much preparation and memorization of the messages. This was true even for his phone calls with reporters, in the night of his first hospitalization three weeks ago.
An interview with him was a nightmare for any journalist. He barricaded himself inside the points he had prepared in advance and never deviated from them. Thus, his close friend and strategist, Reuven Adler, was able to market "the new Sharon" to the public as a moderate and levelheaded man.
He ran his office without the scheming and leaks that clouded his predecessors' terms. His first bureau chief, Uri Shani, was dismissed after he gained too much power. His successor, Dov Weissglas, acted as Sharon's private foreign minister, and in the past year and a half the bureau functioned without any director, as a federation of aides faithful to the boss, each in his own territory, with Sharon overseeing them.
Sharon considered himself second only to his teacher and mentor, the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion. On his way to a third term, he set for himself two objectives that "the old man" was unable to accomplish: Setting the boundaries of the state and reforming the regime structure, which was to strengthen the government's effectiveness and weaken the parties. The public was less interested in details, and saw the upcoming elections as a referendum on the continued rule of Sharon. They relied on "the national grandfather" to know what to do.
But in the end, even Sharon was not able to avoid the tragedy of all his predecessors Not a single prime minister of Israel has left office with honor and tranquility. Rabin was assassinated, Levi Eshkol died of a disease, and all the others lost in elections or were sent home by their parties. Sharon is completing his term as a revered leader who was able to stand up to his enemies at home and abroad, and only faltered on the heroic battle for his health.
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