Irrespective of his prospects for recovery, Ariel Sharon has clearly ended his term as Israel's prime minister and as the leader of the nascent Kadima Party, which was expected to win a landslide victory in the coming national elections. His passing from public life represents not only the fall of the pre-eminent figure in Israeli politics but, more fundamentally, the conclusion of the formative era in Israel's history -- a period Mr. Sharon personified.
Mr. Sharon has been intimately identified with every major event in that history. An infantry officer in the desperate battle for the Jerusalem corridor in the 1948 War of Independence, leader of the paratroopers in the 1956 Sinai campaign, he rose to the rank of general and commanded divisions in the Six Day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As a government minister, he was the architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the primary force behind the settlement movement. With the sole exception of Shimon Peres, he has been a member of the Knesset longer than any other Israeli, and he remains unsurpassed in his ability to forge and maintain coalitions. He began his political career on the left, swung keenly right, and concluded in the center. Mr. Sharon, more than any single Israeli, represented the finest ideals of the Jewish state -- its heroism, resilience and versatility?as well as many of its most controversial policies.
Like Israel, Mr. Sharon was a ganglion of contradictions.
And, like Israel, Mr. Sharon was a ganglion of contradictions. The party he formed in 1977, Shlomzion, advocated negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the creation of a Palestinian state in territories captured by Israel in 1967.
Joining the Likud, however, then under the leadership of Menachem Begin, Mr. Sharon became an unremitting foe of the Palestinian organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat. A Palestinian state already existed, Mr. Sharon claimed, situated in a large part of what was formerly British Mandated Palestine and comprised of a large Palestinian majority--Jordan--and there was no need to establish another.
In the mid-1970s, he staunchly opposed the peace overtures of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and promoted the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied Sinai Peninsula. But the same Sharon also uprooted settlements and withdrew Israeli troops from Sinai in 1982 to fulfill the terms of Israel's peace agreement with Egypt. Several Israeli leaders, Begin included, feared that Mr. Sharon posed a threat to the country's democracy. Nevertheless, when a state investigation found him morally culpable for the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian militiamen in Beirut's Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon promptly complied with the court's finding and resigned.
LONG AND WINDING ROAD
No issue more starkly demonstrated the twists in Mr. Sharon's policies than the so-called Oslo peace accords Israel signed with Yasser Arafat in 1993. Whether as a leader of the rightwing opposition or as a minister in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon consistently warned that Arafat would never abandon terrorism, and that the Oslo process was leading Israel toward disaster.
His predictions were borne out in 2000, when Arafat's al-Fatah faction joined with Islamic terrorist groups in launching a war of suicide bombers and roadside ambushes that devastated Israel's economy and nearly shattered its society. Elected in February 2001, Mr. Sharon refused to meet with Arafat, and eventually mounted a counteroffensive that destroyed the terrorists' infrastructure and left Arafat isolated and besieged in his West Bank headquarters. But then Mr. Sharon again pulled a volte-face and began stressing the need to make "painful sacrifices" for peace, and became the first Israeli prime minister to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.
But what appeared to be inconsistencies in Mr. Sharon's positions was often merely a reflection of his ability to sense out the preferences of the Israeli mainstream. When it became clear that the majority of Israelis would no longer fight to defend 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza and were no longer willing to occupy the strip, he evacuated settlements and left the Gaza Palestinians to shoot at one another. When Israelis overwhelmingly supported the construction of a West Bank fence, Mr. Sharon, who originally opposed the barrier, began to build it. When most Israelis despaired of the status quo with the Palestinians but gave up on the possibility of finding a Palestinian leadership able to negotiate Israel's borders, Mr. Sharon broke away from the status quo Likud and founded Kadima, a party capable of redrawing Israel's borders unilaterally.
Israel's image in the world has changed radically since its founding, and so too have international perceptions of Ariel Sharon. Revered after its struggle for independence in 1948, Israel was then reviled for its part in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956. Respected after its lightning military victory in 1967, and for its stubborn resistance to the Syria-Egypt assault of 1973, Israel again became a target for international censure because of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its settlement policy.
That opprobrium intensified in the years after 2000, when much of the world--the Europeans, in particular -- blamed Israel for provoking Palestinian terror and for employing brutal tactics to counter it. The international image of Mr. Sharon -- at first perceived as a stalwart warrior but later as a trenchant enemy of peace -- has closely mirrored these vicissitudes. The early stage of his premiership was marked by demonstrations throughout Western Europe comparing Mr. Sharon to Hitler and accusing him of war crimes. In the wake of the Gaza withdrawal, though, the international community began to view Israel in a more positive light. The once universally maligned Mr. Sharon was feted at the U.N. and lauded by many of his former European critics as a peacemaker and a statesman.
With his withdrawal from the political scene, Israel stands to enter a new phase in its national existence.
Mr. Sharon's relations with the United States, especially, have followed a pattern established by previous Israeli prime ministers. Willing to irk or even antagonize American leaders on matters relating to Israeli security and its territorial claims, Mr. Sharon, like his predecessors, has labored to maintain close rapport with the U.S. In spite of occasionally spiking tensions arising from Israel's conduct of the war on terror and the course of the separation fence, Mr. Sharon has succeeded in establishing remarkably robust ties with the Bush administration, and strengthening the historical affinity between Israel and the U.S.
The blond and handsome commando and severely overweight politico, the "bulldozer" who pushed thousands of Israelis in and out of settlements, the lover of Hebrew culture whose first language was Russian, the secularist who revered Jewish faith, the fighter of many wars and the champion, ultimately, of peace -- Ariel Sharon has had multiple identities. And yet he has always been thoroughly Israeli, the embodiment of the state's protean and paradoxical nature.
Now, with his withdrawal from the political scene, Israel stands to enter a new phase in its national existence. Less divided, perhaps, and more certain of the borders it wants and the type of society it aspires to create; separated from the Palestinians but open to compromise with them; preserving productive relations with the international community and an unshakeable alliance with the United States. That is the Israel that Ariel Sharon has left us, a formidable legacy for facing the future.
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.