- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

“Brilliant tactician, lousy strategist.” So goes the conventional wisdom about the old bulldozer, Ariel Sharon. But that assessment is exactly backward.

Mr. Sharon’s strategic insight has always proved more impressive than his messy tactical operations. Keep that in mind, even as divided Israelis seem to be yelling at each other while united Palestinians gloat about expelling the Zionists.

Mr. Sharon’s counterattack across the Suez Canal in October 1973 during the Yom Kippur war was also seen as reckless in its disregard for logistics and lines of communication. His 1982 army that invaded Lebanon proved tactically lax in allowing allied Christian militias to commit atrocities.

But Mr. Sharon’s long-term thinking? That’s another story. Trapping the Egyptian 3rd Army in the Sinai, and then showing the world Cairo was defenseless in the path of an Israeli armored division, was a strategic masterpiece aimed at ending the 1973 war outright to Israel’s advantage.

The march into Lebanon forced Yasser Arafat out of the Middle East for a decade — and he might have been discredited for good as a defeated terrorist had third parties not escorted him to Tunis or brought him back under the Oslo accords.

So Mr. Sharon was always a strategic thinker, and we are seeing his accustomed foresight in the controversial Gaza exodus.

The Israeli military is crafting defensible borders, not unlike the old Roman decision to stay on its own side of the Rhine and Danube rivers. In Mr. Sharon’s thinking, it no longer made sense to periodically send thousands of soldiers into Gaza to protect fewer than 10,000 Israeli civilians, when a demographic time bomb of too few Jews was ticking inside Israel proper.

But Gaza itself is only a tessera in a far larger strategic mosaic. The Israelis also press on with the border fence that will in large measure end suicide bombings. The barrier will grant the Palestinians what they clamor for, but perhaps also fear — their own isolated state that they must govern or let the world watch devolve into something like the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Once Israel is out of Gaza and has fenced off slivers of the West Bank near Jerusalem deemed vital for its security, Mr. Sharon can bide his time until a responsible Palestinian government emerges as a serious interlocutor.

Then any lingering disagreements over disputed land can be relegated to the status of a Tibet, northern Cyprus, Kashmir or the Sakhalin and Kurile Islands — all postbellum “contested” territories that do not prompt commensurate attention from the Muslim world, Europe or the United Nations.

Palestine as a sovereign state rather than a perpetually “occupied” territory also inherits the responsibility of all mature nations to police its own. So when Hamas and Co. press on with their killing — most likely through rocket attacks over the fence — they do so as representatives of a new Palestinian nation.

In response, Israel can strike back without worrying about blowback on isolated vulnerable Israeli settlements.

Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal policy from Gaza is thus a critical first step of turning the struggle from an asymmetrical war of terror into a conventional standoff between delineated sovereign states. And that can only help a militarily superior Israel.

Politically, Gaza plays well. If the once right-wing Mr. Sharon can harness his own zealots, the world wonders why Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas cannot muzzle Hamas and Hezbollah.

In their creepy rhetoric, Palestinian militias have so far proclaimed Gaza is the first step toward the eventual destruction of Israel proper. But again that only plays into Israel’s complaint that withdrawal is seen by Palestinians as something to be manipulated rather than as an opportunity to build a just society.

While there probably won’t be a single Jew in the new Palestinian nation, there are more than 1 million Arabs inside Israel. Even more bizarrely, more than 100,000 illegal aliens have left Arab lands to reside in the “Zionist entity.” Politically correct Arabs will not even use the word “Israel,” but tens of thousands of Arabs seem to want into it nonetheless.

In a reciprocal world, why couldn’t the Jewish settlers stay on in Gaza as resident aliens, adjudicating their property claims with the new government and freely abiding by Palestinian law and protocol? Mr. Sharon reminds us that, unlike the Arabs inside Israel, the Gaza Jews would be ethnically cleansed in hours as nearly a million Jews were run out of Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Tripoli in the decades after 1947.

The pullout from Gaza is bringing long-needed moral clarity to a fuzzy crisis. Heretofore, the Palestinians have counted on foreign support through fear of terrorism, influence with oil producers, unspoken anti-Semitism and carefully crafted victim status accorded savvy anti-Western zealots. But now they are increasingly on their own, and what transpires may soon end their romance of being the perpetually oppressed.

So Ariel Sharon leaves, with a “Hasta la vista, Gaza — and be careful what you wish for.”

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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