Sharon, Savior of the Settler, After All

Genius in statecraft is often slow to reveal itself. Genius in strategy often masquerades as folly.

Genius in statecraft is often slow to reveal itself. Genius in strategy often masquerades as folly.

Consider the case of Ariel Sharon. A recent opinion poll, conducted ahead of the second anniversary of his devastating January 4, 2006, cerebral hemorrhage, showed that 26.8 percent of Israelis believe Sharon's stroke was punishment for his expulsion of thousands of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip less than half a year earlier.

That number was more than twice as high - 56.6 percent - among the country's ultra-Orthodox Jews. Asked whether it was correct to "connect Sharon's health conditions to his part in the disengagement and view it as a punishment," 56.6 percent of the Haredim surveyed agreed with the statement. In time, we may come to view these numbers as especially curious, not to say cruel, in view of the following:

In erasing all traces of Israel in the Gaza Strip, in the course of six days in the summer of 2005, Sharon may have guaranteed the permanent occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem - territory captured by Israel in the space of six days in the summer of 1967.

Though he incurred the fiery wrath of the secular and religious right, Sharon, in disengaging from Gaza, may have ensured the existence of the West Bank settlements in perpetuity. In the bargain - and this may have been his ultimate intention - he set in motion the events that have demolished the movement for an independent Palestine. Perhaps more correctly, he paved the way for the Palestinian national movement to demolish itself, possibly permanently.

We may never know what Sharon's real intentions were in ordering and overseeing the dissolution of the settlement project he once shepherded in the Strip. On the face of it, he seemed to be tearing apart the very enterprise that had been his life's work, the settlement movement in the territories. Certainly, without Sharon's prodding, planning and literal bulldozing, as founding ideologue of the Likud and in a long succession of cabinet posts, the settlement movement would be but an anemic shadow of its present self - a central arbiter of Israeli policy and effective landlord of much of the West Bank.

Only a mind as endlessly imaginative and bottomlessly outrageous as Sharon's could have come up with the notion of blanketing the territories with settlements, and then causing them to materialize.

Only a mind as keenly attuned to public opinion as Sharon's could have perceived that the Israeli people couldn't wait to leave Gaza, even avowed right-wingers, who, after one tour of reserve duty in that least Jewish of places, became overnight-converts to the idea of building a fence around the place and giving it away.

Only a mind as relentlessly scheming as Sharon's could know that the anguish engendered by the disengagement, coupled with the government's inability to resettle 8,000 of the total of more than a quarter million settlers, would forever give Israelis pause over a further expulsion. Moreover, in offering Gush Katif and Netzarim as a sacrifice, Sharon won landmark White House support for a future annexation of settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Finally, only a mind as guileful as Sharon's could have foreseen that from the moment Israel left Gaza, the Palestinians would respond in ways that would effectively block the path of their own statehood:

b That the Palestinians would immediately act to lose international sympathy by using the ruins of the settlements not as platforms for promoting critically needed employment for Gazans, but as launching sites to attack Israel's civilian population.

b That the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would be claimed and exploited as a grand victory by the Islamists of Hamas, who would then crush the corrupt and feeble Fatah in an election victory that caught Hamas entirely unprepared for rule.

b That their election victory would prompt Hamas officials, who rode to power on an anti-corruption ticket, to explore the temptations of corruption themselves.

b That the frictions of governance would lead Hamas and Fatah to a step Palestinians had believed unthinkable: a civil war in which the brutality of Hamas prompted immediate and persuasive comparisons to the harshest measures of Israeli occupation - and worse.

b That the split would also be reflected in an international boycott of the remaining Palestinian government in Gaza, encompassing such traditional friends and benefactors of the Palestinians as the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

b That the sectarian feuding and the lack of coherent leadership would so demoralize Palestinians that they would begin to question the very wisdom of establishing an independent Palestine in the foreseeable future.

The hard right and the fanatically religious can curse Sharon and gloat over his incapacitation all they want. Even as they spat on him, burned him in effigy, blackened his memory, denigrated his deeds, he did their work for them, all by himself.