In crossing the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, Ariel Sharon took his division at night through a gap between two Egyptian armies deployed on the Israeli side of the waterway. Before the Egyptians were aware, his engineers had bridged the canal and tanks rolled across in an attack that turned the war around.
In his maneuvering as prime minister, Mr. Sharon again plunged through the center to create a new reality. Avoiding the naysaying of Likud on the left and the earnest but ineffective negotiating attempts of Labor on the right, Mr. Sharon breached the status quo with his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
Unilateral withdrawals permit Israel to reshape its borders without being held ransom to intransigence or chaos in the Palestinian camp. The disadvantage is that it avoids peace.
Mr. Sharon often told intimates he did not believe peace possible with the Palestinians, at least in this generation. He was apparently intent on moving the country instead toward a modus vivendi amounting to co-existence with a Palestinian state. Peace negotiations would be attempted, but if the Palestinians could not disarm the militants, end incitement and set up an orderly administration, Israel would fall back to an interim border line of its own choosing and wait for better days.
The route of the mooted border is largely defined by the barrier being built parallel to the pre-Six Day War border. It embraces the main Israeli settlement blocs but excludes many outlying settlements, which would be evacuated. Israel, in this scenario, would hunker down behind the barrier until satisfactory peace negotiations are concluded with the Palestinians. The border would be interim, but Mr. Sharon indicated that could last a long time.
He apparently believed this arrangement would reduce the intensity of the confrontation by separating the two populations and permitting the Palestinians to build a state.
The question is whether the Kadima Party under Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can pursue this goal without Mr. Sharon.
Until the Sharon mantle fell upon him, Mr. Olmert ranked last in popularity among the new party’s leaders. His political skills, including the ability to think on his feet, are admired, but he has been regarded by peers and by the public as slicker than sincere, a bit too well tailored, a bit too fond of the company of wealthy businessmen.
In a country where one’s military record counts, Mr. Olmert has little to boast of. A clip on Israel Television over the weekend showed him in uniform at Mr. Sharon’s headquarters during the Yom Kippur War — but as a journalist for an army magazine, looking meek indeed opposite the warhorse general in full gallop.
Mr. Olmert, however, does have intelligence and finely honed political instincts. If to these gravitas can be added, he may yet rise to the occasion. His restrained behavior since Mr. Sharon’s hospitalization has been exemplary.
As a young Likud parliamentarian, Mr. Olmert was as far right as Mr. Sharon. He opposed the agreement by his own leader, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, to withdraw from Sinai as part of the peace agreement with Egypt but later acknowledged that “he [Begin] was right and I was wrong.”
As Jerusalem mayor for 10 years, he permitted right-wing Jewish extremists to build housing in the midst of Arab areas. Since returning to the Knesset three years ago, however, he has taken surprisingly liberal positions.
Although Mr. Sharon still clung, at least publicly, to Israel’s claim of sovereignty over all Jerusalem, including Arab East Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert has boldly favored a final transfer of most Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinian Authority. He also urged withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
His first public move after Mr. Sharon’s stroke was to summon a Cabinet meeting to signal the government’s continuity. The uncommon soberness of his expression on that occasion suggested gravitas was well upon him. It is now for him to lead the way through the breach opened by Mr. Sharon as Mr. Sharon himself had done on the banks of the Suez half a lifetime ago.
Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post and a regular contributor to The Washington Times. His recent book is, “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East.”