- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

While Israel’s Prime MinisterAriel Sharonis hovering between life and death at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, the world, and, of course, the people in Israel, are trying to come to grips with the post-Sharon era. Though the transfer of powers to the prime minister’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, hasbeenremarkably smooth, both the former’s supporters and opponents have come to realize the extent of the void he has left on Israel’s political scene. He will be missed by both.

Mr. Sharon, after all, was not just a politician or only a military person. He was the last of that small and remarkable group of courageous Jewish soldier-statesmen, including also the late Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, whose unusual combination of fighting skills and leadership qualities guided the Jewish people in its struggle to re-establish its sovereignty in its ancient homeland — and to defend it against the continued acts of aggression and terror by those who aim to destroy it.

The debate about Mr. Sharon’s “legacy” has already started, ignoring the fact that “legacy” may be an entirely wrong term when applied to pragmatists like Mr. Sharon (for the same reason there is, of course, no Rabin legacy, either). Probably closest to the facts would be that the “legacy” of Mr. Sharon is Mr. Sharon himself — not that which some media people and politicians, often to serve their own personal or political purposes, try to ascribe to him.

When President Bush, more than a year ago, had called Mr. Sharon a “man of peace,” he got a great deal of flak from all the expected quarters. But peace was exactly what Mr. Sharon was after — though, based on his experience, he had scant confidence in the legalistic formulations of this word. I remember him saying to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright at the 1998 Wye River conference: “… it makes no difference what agreement Yasser Arafat will sign — he has anyway never honored a single agreement he ever made and never will.” For him “peace” meant that the best that could be achieved under the present circumstances was a de facto end to violence, based on the mutual interests of Israel and the Palestinians — to be reached either by negotiations or by unilateral steps (as in the recent withdrawal from Gaza) or by a combination of the two.

All his life his overriding concern had been the security of Israel and the Jewish people, everything emanated from that: whether the large and strategically important settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria (a.k.a. the “West Bank”), Israel’s future borders, eventual Palestinian statehood — and even the question of demography, i.e. how to assure a Jewish majority in at least parts of the Promised Land.

As long as 12 years ago, following the ill-conceived Oslo agreement, Mr. Sharon had told the Central Committee of his Likud Party, that in any future arrangement Israel must keep under its control certain “security zones” (similar to the concept of “specified security locations” of the Camp David agreement of 1978) — the clear implication being, though this wasn’t universally grasped by either his followers or opponents — nor by the press — that Israel wouldn’t necessarily have to hold on to all other areas.

Most importantly, Mr. Sharon realized that for the foreseeable future it was completely unrealistic to expect that Israel and the Palestinians could reach a final, formal, permanent-status agreement — an agreement which would have compelled both sides to make what they saw as untenable compromises. He thus rebuffed the arguments from both right and left who accused him that Israel hadn’t received from the Palestinians anything in exchange for handing over Gaza and dismantling the Jewish settlements there which had turned a barren strip of land into a flourishing garden.

“Not so,” his reasoning must have been: What is really important is the support of America for any future arrangement based on Israel’s vital security imperatives. Which brings us to Israel’s security fence — initially opposed by Mr. Sharon but eventually enthusiastically promoted by him. As he has often clarified, the fence was not a political border but a barrier against Palestinian suicide bombers.

That said, however, one may assume that in his own way of thinking this barrier could serve as an important security-based starting point if and when permanent-status negotiations will actually take place. Hence his strong support for the international (U.S., Europe, U.N. and Russia) “Quartet’s” roadmap, largely based on Mr. Bush’s vision for Middle East peace; though perhaps not an ideal document from Israel’s point of view, Mr. Sharon’s commitment emanated from his belief that the only chance the envisaged “two-state solution” could come to fruition is by strictly adhering to the three phases of the roadmap — the first and most important of which was to be an absolute end to violence, dismantling the terrorist organizations, handing over illegal arms, and initiating comprehensive governmental reforms — none of which, by the way, have happened so far.

Future historians will thus have to judge Ariel Sharon’s legacy by results — not by premature and not wholly disinterested interpretations.

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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