- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Historians know a departed leader’s legacy cannot be assessed accurately until many years have passed, let alone before he is technically even gone. Yet, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may be the exception that proves the rule.

Few statesmen have worked harder or more self-consciously at defining their “place in history.” In recent years, particularly as he and his family became embroiled in a corruption scandal, he strove to ensure he would not be remembered for his controversial role in the 1982 massacres in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps.

Instead, Ariel Sharon curried favor with his critics by recasting himself as a peacemaker. Though he justified his unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip as a security measure, its true character was evident in the fact he was suddenly lionized by those on the left who reviled him for decades. Overnight, he joined the peculiar pantheon reserved by the world for Israeli leaders who surrender territory to Israel’s enemies in hopes the Jewish State would thereby, somehow be left alone in peace.

Second, Mr. Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal legacy was a distinctly personal accomplishment. It seems unlikely any other Israeli politician could have pulled it off. But Mr. Sharon did, thanks to his reputation as a brilliant military general, his credentials as a lifelong “hawk” on security and the famed tenacity that enabled him to “bulldoze” first his opponents, and then the Israeli communities in Gaza.

Third, after only four months, the repercussions of the Sharon surrender of Gaza are becoming frighteningly clear. As my brilliant colleague, Caroline Glick, put it in her column in the Jerusalem Post last week:

“Today, as the Palestinian Authority has ceased to operate in any coherent manner; as the Egyptian border with Gaza has been open for terror traffic for three months; and as Hamas has emerged as the most prevalent force in Palestinian politics and society, it is impossible to deny that Sharon’s decision to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza and northern Samaria has vastly empowered Palestinian terrorists. Today, the Gaza Strip has become one of the most active and dangerous bases for jihadi terrorism in the world.”

Moreover, had Ariel Sharon not been struck down by ill-health at this juncture, his ultimate legacy would likely have been even more damning. He was determined to effect a similar, unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

There, too, Israeli forces’ departure would have been marked by claims of victory over the Jews by those determined to destroy them. There, too, the assertion terror works would justify more of it. There, too, the upshot would likely have been anarchy, at best; at worst, an incipient state-sponsor of terror under a Taliban-style Islamofascist Hamas.

The danger posed by such an enclave on one or both sides of Israel will not be confined to the Jewish State. As we saw in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001, safe havens for al Qaeda and its Islamist friends are a threat to the entire Free World, including its leader, the United States.

For this reason, much as the passing — politically, if not physically — of Ariel Sharon might be seen as a tragedy for his loved ones and for many Israelis, it may prove providential for his country, and ours. It affords an opportunity for sober reflection about the wisdom of Mr. Sharon’s policies and their repercussions. No longer will Israel be driven headlong by a man who clearly felt he was nearly out of time and was determined to carry out his vision, with little regard for the consequences.

Now, Israel and other freedom-loving nations have an opportunity to reckon with the effects of the Gaza withdrawal, before compounding them with further “disengagements” in the West Bank. The Israelis must find ways to deal with the Kassam rockets increasingly fired by Palestinian terrorists, mocking the idea separation alone will secure the Jewish State.

The same goes for the border with Egypt now traversed with impunity by smugglers of ever-more-dangerous arms — including, it appears, surface-to-air missiles capable of downing airliners flying into and out of Israeli airports. Allowing such weapons and those who would wield them free rein in much of the West Bank could cripple Israel’s critically important tourist industry, its economy and in time the country as a whole.

The interlude due to Mr. Sharon’s departure should allow Israel and the rest of the Free World to focus on another, far more pressing problem: the mortal threat of an Islamofascist Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the old general’s absence may make decisionmaking and action more difficult.

But, as the saying goes, “the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wondrously.” An Iranian regime bent on “wiping Israel off the map” and “a world without America” represents such an existential threat that the leadership and will must be found to deny Tehran the means to act on these ambitions.

If we fail to do so, historians may see Ariel Sharon’s weakening of his country in the face of its enemies as the precursor to a devastating new phase in the War for the Free World.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and lead-author of “War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World.”

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