- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

One need only see a picture of Ariel Sharon to recognize that, 77 years old and way more than hefty, the man was a prime candidate for a stroke. Sure enough, the Israeli prime minister suffered one Sunday.

The news may have been shocking but it could scarcely have been a surprise. Asked once if he wore a bulletproof vest in public, the prime minister replied with his usual brevity and bluntness: “They don’t make them in my size.” He’s not called the Bulldozer just because of his political and military tactics.

Even if it was only a minor stroke, as his doctors and aides assured the world, no stroke is a minor event in a patient’s medical history. This could be the precursor of major strokes ahead, and so may determine some political history, too.

You could almost see a question that earlier was only a matter of speculation now assuming a new urgency among the old man’s admirers and critics alike: After Sharon, what? It no longer seems an abstract question. It had become as real as an electrocardiogram.

It is hard to imagine Israeli politics without the old general, and it is almost impossible to imagine his new party without him. For it is his invention, vehicle and baby. At least till Sunday his baby had seemed sure to dominate the March 28 Israeli elections and the next Israeli government after that. Polls indicated his list would win the most seats — 35 to 40 — of the many parties in the 120-member parliament. Now what?

For six decades, Ariel Sharon has fought his country’s battles, saved it a couple of times by the boldest of initiatives in war and peace, and also dishonored it on shameful occasion. Israel’s George S. Patton, he has regularly been in trouble with his superiors. In the 1982 war in Lebanon, he was found indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese militias — gangs he should have strictly controlled.

Afterward, he was sent into political exile for a couple of years. But, as usual, he staged a comeback. It was just like him to name his new party Kadima, or Forward. Ariel Sharon was never one to retreat. But if he’s sidelined by another stroke, what of any forward movement — for his party, country, region?

Over the years, Ariel Sharon seemed always to be there, like a mountain. Sunday the mountain shuddered, and reactions were predictable: Even the usually voluble Israelis seemed stunned into momentary silence, even prayers.

The respectful silence didn’t last long, but it was as telling as it was unusual. It was as if his countrymen realized for a moment how much they depend on the one figure able to unite Israel.

In Gaza, the reaction was quite different: Celebrations broke out as pastries were distributed and shots fired in the air. It was as if Delilah had delivered Samson there again. The usual masked men lifted their Kalashnikovs in joy. But as Mark Twain once said about news of his own death, the reports were greatly exaggerated.

Much as the Gazans love a party — remember the celebrations after September 11, 2001, among Palestinians? — they will have to put away the candy and confetti for another inevitable day. The general hasn’t proven mortal just yet, or the aborning Palestinian state stable.

Ariel Sharon may have withdrawn the last Jewish settlements from Gaza, but it’s not clear what authority, if any, will fill the vacuum. Mahmoud Abbas’ weak and fractious “government” is challenged by various terrorist rivals, from Hamas to Islamic Jihad, and his own party, Fatah, seems split between a corrupt old guard and a rebellious new generation. In this “new” Palestinian regime, such as it is, Yasser Arafat’s legacy remains dominant: violence and anarchy.

In that case, with whom are the Israelis to make peace? Right now they can’t even decide on the route of the security barrier they’ve erected across the country in an effort to impose peace unilaterally. They understand this attempt to wall off suicide bombers may also establish their future border.

Only Ariel Sharon seems able to inspire the degree of trust an Israeli leader needs to make concessions in any peace agreement. Now out of the hospital, the old war horse is champing at the bit. But how long can he keep it up?

A lot more than a single aging patient seems to have been shaken up Sunday. Tell us again that the individual doesn’t matter in the broad sweep of history.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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