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Ariel Sharon is in a coma, and outside the gates of Hadassah University Hospital the debate has erupted over his "legacy." Dove or hawk? Settlement destroyer or outpost builder? Man of compromise or repressor of the Palestinians?

During the long and winding path of the career of Ariel Sharon, and in his last five years as prime minister, it is easy to find signs of both - stubborn and flexible, builder and destroyer. How confusing.

The current debate is over the West Bank withdrawal map that Sharon left behind. Once again it is being asked if he "had a plan" and strategy. Did he mean to withdraw to the fence, or only to evacuate a few isolated settlements? Over what period of time? And how did he plan to control the "security zone" in the Jordan Valley? And what did he mean by "Palestinian state" - independence and sovereignty or fenced Bantustans?

Supporters of the deep withdrawal theory grab hold of things Sharon said about the demographic threat. Their opponents quote his doctrine about the importance of holding onto the strategic hilltops. Everyone agrees "Gaza first" was not the end.

It is difficult to know what Sharon would do if he were healthy and had remained in power. But if it is time to put some order into his decision-making and governing as prime minister, then the conclusion is that his "legacy" is more about the method than the final results. In his eyes, the purpose of political and diplomatic activity was to serve the interests of today and tomorrow and not the sayings, beliefs and institutions of the past. That explains why he broke up the settlements of Gaza and then the Likud, and why he apparently was preparing for further withdrawals from the West Bank, which were meant to reduce the friction and the occupation and to ease the international pressure on Israel.

Sharon did not turn into a dove and leftist as his opponents on the right complain, even as he harmed the settlers far more than Rabin, Peres or Barak did. He did not think the settlements are unjustified or illegal. Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel was and remains a supreme value for him. But Sharon, who knew by heart the numbers of Jews and Arabs in the country since the Balfour Declaration, understood that Israel had failed to populate the territories and had not managed to bring "a million Jews" beyond the Green Line. Under conditions of demographic inferiority, he preferred to retreat, shorten the lines, protect the settlement blocs that had dug deep roots.

The change Sharon made at the end of his political career was to update the concept of the "Iron Wall" that guided him his entire life. He understood that military force was not enough to persuade the Arabs to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. For years he searched in vain for the strategic fulcrum that would lead to the Arabs accepting Zionism, only to find out that they would continue to wage war even after they were beaten over and over again. His conclusion was that the military "Iron Wall" needed a political brick of legitimacy and international support, a brick of broad internal agreement, and a demographic brick of Jewish majority. Otherwise, the entire enterprise would be in danger.

That is the background to the construction of the separation fence, acceptance of the road map, and the disengagement. Sharon's message to his successors is not some secret map, but a method: Assess the situation, weigh the forces you face, the dangers and risks, and then decide. Don't take into account what you said or did in the past.

Does that mean a withdrawal to the separation fence is inevitable? Given the international and domestic atmosphere, that seems to be the direction. But Israel is still not there, and the result depends on the public legitimacy of the next government, the intensity of the external pressures, and in particular, the developments on the Palestinian side.