- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not head his newly established Kadima Party in the March 28 parliamentary elections, or lead Israel beyond that. However, his Kadima party and its supporters in the Bush administration seem now determined to support Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The forthcoming Olmert White House visit would be the strongest signal the U.S. is squarely behind Mr. Sharon’s hand-picked successor. But many in Israel are not sure Mr. Olmert can fill Mr. Sharon’s giant shoes. He lacks his mentor’s military prowess, popularity and ties to the U.S. Jewish community.

The old warrior and leader’s contribution to Israeli security was tremendous. He was the best tactician and battlefield general Israel had since her birth. He is leaving the scene as the last prime minister of the heroic generation, to which the late Yitzhak Rabin also belonged — the men and women who created the state and fought all their lives for its survival.

Mr. Sharon is a man of great personal bravery and charisma. He was left for the dead in the bloody Latrun battle of 1948, when newly formed Israel was attacked by five neighboring Arab countries, and returned to found and lead Commando 101 in the early 1950s — a unit that revolutionized special operations in the Israeli Defense Forces and around the world.

Mr. Sharon was a very successful commander in the 1956 Suez War and during and after the Six-Day War. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War he surrounded the 3rd Egyptian Army to the West of the Suez Canal against the direct orders of his superiors and rivals in the military high command. His bold flanking maneuver brought Egypt to the brink of collapse. This breakthrough in classic ground operations is studied in military academies the world over. This author heard many Israeli vets say, “I fought under Arik and I would follow him to hell.”

He entered politics after the surprise Arab attack that started the Yom Kippur War precipitated a crisis of confidence over Israel’s lack of preparedness, creating the Likud in 1975 and winning its first victory in the 1977 elections, when the late Menachem Begin became Israel’s first non-socialist prime minister. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat arrived for his historic visit to Jerusalem, his first question at the Ben Gurion airport was, “Is Arik here?”

But Mr. Sharon often overreached. The 1982 Lebanon War, of which he was the architect as Mr. Begin’s defense minister, was a mixed bag for Israel strategically. The Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, which had triggered the Lebanon Civil War in 1975 and had been attacking Israel from South Lebanon, was evacuated and dispersed from Tunis to Yemen to Iraq. However, as a result of Syrian- and Iran-led resistance, hundreds of Israeli soldiers died.

Twenty years ago, a veteran Israeli journalist Uri Dan, Mr. Sharon’s friend for decades, said, “Those who did not want him as a chief of staff [of the IDF], will get him as minister of defense, and those who don’t want him as a minister of defense, will get him as a prime minister.” He was right.

Mr. Sharon’s last hurrah was his unflinching leadership in putting down the Palestinian Terror War (the so-called “Second Intifada”) in 2001-2004. He was elected prime minister with huge landslides twice — very much a father figure to the embattled and insecure Israelis. However, his 2005 Gaza withdrawal may have been as strategically problematic as his Lebanon adventure.

Mr. Sharon was undergoing a change of worldview. Starting out as a hawk and supporter of biblical Israel, after election to prime minister he became a moderate, almost a peacenik. Last fall he abandoned his own baby, the Likud, where he was losing support. He accepted President Bush’s vision of a democratic Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

However, the Gaza withdrawal split Israeli society like never before. And the current riots and snowballing terrorist eruptions in Gaza demonstrate that his hopes for a Palestinian peace partner may have been the naive cry of the heart of an old battle-weary veteran who lost too many friends and countrymen to wars and Arab terror. They may have been also a result of his mistaken belief he can bend reality to his will.

Many believe the Gaza retreat may cost Israel many lives if the terror-mongers now feel empowered. Israel’s withdrawal under terror fire was perceived as a sign of weakness by the Arab street, and is likely to trigger another terror onslaught led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia. These death merchants have already promised that the “third Intifada” will begin soon, while rocket fire and suicide bombings continue.

In 2003, Mr. Sharon said Israel needs to stick to its guns for 30 more years. By the end of that time, new technologies could render oil obsolete. This still may be the case. But his optimism regarding redrawing Israel’s borders may have been part of the can-do, overreaching personality which so many Israelis admired. In the end, his long-term strategy may have been miscalculated, and his vision destroyed by his body’s frailty.

Without Mr. Sharon’s popularity and leadership, his new party may perform poorly in the March elections. It may also disintegrate after the elections.

Sharon is also a man of truly biblical fate. He loved his country and bled for it many times. He lost his first wife early and married her sister, Lily, with whom he lived happily for more than 25 years. His young son shot himself by accident with his father’s weapon and died in his hands. He was hounded by accusations of corruption. But he also vindicated himself by becoming one of the greatest Israeli leaders.

The double challenge of opposing Hamas and other terrorist organizations after the Palestinian legislative elections and addressing Iran’s nuclear threat to Israel’s very existence will fall now on the shoulders of the new generation of Israeli leaders. They will miss Mr. Sharon’s wisdom, experience, determination and popularity.

The man was often reviled on the left and later on the right, but will be revered as a great Israeli military and political leader after his political and personal road ends.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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