The Magazine

Ariel Sharon's Legacy

From soldier to statesman, by way of most vilified leader in the world.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Yet at a time of national crisis, following the last gasp of the Oslo Accords with the collapse of the peace process in the summer of 2000, and the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, Sharon was elected prime minister with the largest margin of victory in Israel's history. Upon assuming office in March 2001, he promptly broke the back of the ultra-orthodox parties that had long maintained a paralyzing veto on government policy, forming instead a coalition with the center left. And Sharon provided room for his fierce rival, Minister of the Treasury Benjamin Netanyahu, to institute dramatic free market reforms designed to overcome the stifling grip of state-run labor unions, heavy taxation, and a centralized economy--holdovers from Israel's European socialist roots.

BUT SHARON MADE HIS MOST ENDURING MARK on Israeli politics by presiding over the formation of a powerful new consensus on national security. The need for a new approach became evident in the fall of 2000 when Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada. Choosing war instead of either the generous concessions that Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered at Camp David in the summer of 2000 or further negotiations, Arafat at long last managed to convince a sizable segment of the Israeli left that he could never be trusted as a partner in peace. The decision on the part of many of these stunned and chastened Israelis to vote for Sharon, or not vote for Barak, reflected their desire for a wartime leader. But, as the war unfolded, the systematic use by the Palestinians of suicide bombers to terrorize civilians impelled Sharon to see something new as well: The dream of a Greater Israel, in which Israel ruled over West Bank and Gazan Palestinians, was inconsistent with Israel's long-term security interests.

This recognition informed Sharon's decision to build the security fence separating Israel from the West Bank (a fence protecting Israel from Gaza was already in place). The idea of a fence, running more or less along the Green Line (the 1949 armistice boundaries separating Israel from the West Bank, then held by Jordan, and the Sinai and Gaza, then held by Egypt), came from the left. Those on the right were loath to cut off the towns and cities that Israel, to a significant extent under Sharon's direction, had built after 1967 beyond the Green Line. Sharon's embrace of the fence in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, was a turning point, both in the war itself and in the emergence of Israel's new security consensus. Where the security fence has been completed (contrary to typical reports in the press, only about 5 percent of the barrier is a wall, and then either to protect against snipers, or to save space and spare residential dwellings), it has substantially reduced the number of successful suicide bombings.

In addition, Operation Defensive Shield, ordered by Sharon in the spring of 2002 after a Hamas suicide bomber killed 29 and injured 140 at a Passover seder in a Netanya hotel, cleared out terrorist havens in West Bank refugee camps. And Sharon's policy of taking the war to the enemy through targeted killing of terrorist leaders further threw the various Palestinian terrorist organizations into disarray. Well before Arafat died in November 2004, it was clear that Sharon had led Israel to victory in Arafat's suicide bomber war.

Sharon's new thinking culminated in his announcement in December 2003 of plans for unilateral disengagement from Gaza and large parts of the West Bank. This was not meant to nullify the Road Map to which Israel had agreed in 2002, at the urging of the Bush administration, but rather to declare that Israel could not wait indefinitely for the Palestinian Authority to meet its obligations under the Road Map to disarm the terrorists.

Sharon warned Israelis of "painful concessions." And indeed, the removal of 9,000 Israelis from their homes and farms on a narrow strip of land on the edge of Gaza in the summer of 2005 did convulse Israeli politics. But just as he supervised as defense minister the evacuation of the Israeli-built Sinai town of Yamit in 1981 in fulfillment of Israel's obligations under the peace treaty with Egypt, so Sharon, despite the rupture that it created in his own party, saw disengagement from Gaza through to the end. His actions put Palestinians, for the first time in their history, in charge of governing themselves.