After almost eight years in a vegetative state it appears that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s long struggle for life may be at its end. According to Tel Hashomer Hospital’s spokesman, Sharon’s condition has deteriorated and sources are telling the Israeli press that his organs are failing, leaving little doubt about the ultimate outcome. When the end comes it is to be expected that most of the international press will center their obituaries on the more controversial aspects of his public career. As a military officer, a Cabinet minister, and then prime minister, Sharon was often viewed as a “bulldozer” with few fans outside of those who care about Israel’s security and many detractors, both at home an abroad. They will focus on the debate about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and the building of Israel’s security fence in the wake of the Palestinian terror offensive known as the Second Intifada so as to besmirch his reputation as well as that of the Jewish state that he spent his life defending.
But as much as Sharon was the bête noire of the Israeli left as well as Israel-bashers in general, he will also be spoken of as an example of a leader who had the credibility and the guts to try to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza will be cited repeatedly by Middle East experts like Aaron David Miller not so much for his failure to devise a unilateral solution to the conflict but because it provides a contrast with what Miller and other members of the foreign-policy establishment consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s lackluster leadership. Having exited the scene years ago Sharon has now been elevated in the eyes of many of his country’s friends and critics (such as the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn) if only because it allows them the opportunity to bash the man who occupies the office he once held. Though they will be right to say that no one on the current Israeli political scene has the mythic status that Sharon attained, the idea that peace might be possible if Sharon or someone like him were in the prime minister’s office is a fallacy.
It is true that only someone with the security credentials that Sharon, who was a hero of several Israeli wars, possessed could have pulled off the Gaza withdrawal. Having been reelected in 1983 by running on a platform skewering Labor candidate Amram Mitzna’s proposal for abandoning Gaza, Sharon blew up the Likud Party and rammed the same proposal through the Knesset and implemented it despite the opposition of most of those who had supported him. That took not only guts but also the kind of self-confidence that perhaps only war heroes who have won landslide election victories possess.
Perhaps the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal would have gone better or at least differently had Sharon not fallen ill. Like those who fantasize that the Oslo peace process might not have been such a failure if only Yitzhak Rabin had lived and forced the Palestinians to abide by the accords and rallied Israelis behind the deal, some will spin similarly unlikely, counter-factual scenarios about Sharon. Perhaps he would not have tolerated the Hamas coup in Gaza or not responded to the rain of missile fire that emanated from the Strip after the withdrawal with the same passivity that his successor Ehud Olmert displayed for almost three years before authorizing a counter-attack. But it is just as likely, if not more so, that Sharon would have been boxed in by the same unfortunate circumstances as Olmert. After all, Hamas had been shooting rockets at Israeli settlements in Gaza as well as southern Israel for years before the withdrawal without provoking a significant military response from Sharon’s government.
However, the real lesson to be drawn from this chapter of history is that the lack of great men with the vision to try something new is not what is preventing peace. From 2001 to 2005, Israelis and Palestinians were both governed by larger-than-life figures. Though it is unfair to compare Sharon, an honorable soldier and a veteran of democratic politics, to a terrorist murderer like Yasir Arafat, one must concede that if any leaders had the standing to sell peace to their respective constituencies, it was those two. What was lacking was not someone with the ability to convince Israelis to take risks but a Palestinian partner and a Palestinian people ready to accept the notion of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. If Israelis are skeptical about Secretary of State John Kerry’s current campaign to get them to again contemplate withdrawing from territory it is not because they lack leaders, a desire for peace, or are devoted to the cause of keeping settlements but because they think repeating Sharon’s Gaza fiasco in the far more strategic West Bank would be madness.
Netanyahu may seem like a small man when compared to Sharon just as Mahmoud Abbas may strike Palestinians as a pygmy when contrasted to Arafat. But what are needed in the Middle East are not great men so much as a sea change in Palestinian culture that will make peace possible. Until that happens, waiting for another Sharon or even another Arafat won’t hasten the end of the conflict.