He Charted His Nation’s Destiny
There are no words to express the sadness of millions of Israelis and people around the world on hearing of the strokes suffered by Prime Minister Sharon during this fateful time in the Middle East. Those who pinned their hopes on his vision to deliver peace and those of us who knew Sharon first-hand have a deeper sense of the potential loss for Israel and even for its foes. No matter how harshly he may have been perceived because of the actions he took to ensure the security for his people, Sharon was a man of peace. He answered the call when time and circumstances summoned him. He placed national interests above personal and party interests while beseeching his fellow politicians to rise to the historical occasion and answer the public’s yearning for peace, even when it meant making painful territorial concessions.
In assessing the political implications of Sharon’s critical illness, one has to keep in mind that Sharon the person is an historical giant who transcends his time. Sharon may be remembered for being many things: war hero, father of the settlements, founder of the Likud party, and to some, the person indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Most of all, however, Sharon will be credited for creating a public consensus in Israel for making major territorial concessions by withdrawing from Gaza, beginning the de-facto creation of a two-state solution and thereby moving decisively to end the decades-long agonizing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A realist, he came to accept that, from a demographic perspective, continued occupation is simply not sustainable. With courage and iron determination, he then abandoned a lifetime commitment to a party and its ideology of a greater Israel to pursue a policy of peace and security. In planning and implementing the withdrawal from Gaza, he demonstrated incredible political resiliency, an unsurpassed capacity to rally his people, and the decisive leadership required by time and circumstances.
Once he concluded that the Likud’s current ideology made it an obstacle to peace, he abandoned it not to lead another party, but because he thought it necessary to form a new organization responsive to the needs of his people and to resolve the Palestinian question. In taking this step, Sharon created a movement to which people from the left, right, and center gravitated—those who had lost faith in their own parties. The formation of Kadima offers the substantive proof to the overwhelming majority of Israelis that Sharon recognized their ardent desire for an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. As India’s Jawaharlal Nehru once observed: “A leader does not create a mass movement out of nothing, as if by a stroke of the magician’s wand. He can take advantage of the conditions themselves when they arise. . . . ” Sharon captured the public imagination at an historic crossroad in his nation’s life. Thus, he was viewed as the right person at the right time and place to deliver what his people wanted—peace with security. Although he would have been a major force in leading his new party to victory in the March elections and then in forming the new government, the movement he has created transcends personalities. Kadima, in my view, will forge ahead because there is no other political party with a clear and credible plan that could lead to a permanent solution acceptable to the Palestinians while still safeguarding Israel’s national security interests.
We can only hope that Sharon will recover soon enough to reassume the leadership of his movement. Sharon has written his own destiny. But if destiny prevents him from realizing his life-long dream of peace, other Israeli leaders will come to the fore and forge ahead to fulfill his legacy. In the event of his absence, other prominent members who have joined Kadima will vie for its leadership. Two obvious contenders would be the current Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. However, the most likely successor will be former Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, now the acting Prime Minister. A seasoned politician, Olmert has held several portfolios and was mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years. He has worked side-by-side Sharon for many years and thoroughly shares his convictions. As a believer in the two-state solution, Olmert was the first Likud member to speak publicly about the need for Israel to withdraw from much of the West Bank. If he becomes prime minister, he must, to succeed, not only pursue Sharon’s vision, but demonstrate decisiveness and clarity on national security matters while also establishing his leadership in the party early on to avoid any speculations about where he stands on issues of vital national concern.
Although the current political uncertainty in Israel may create the sense of a political vacuum, it will be a terrible mistake to assume, as some of Israel’s foes might, that Israel is vulnerable and try to capitalize on this perception. Israel is a country of law and order and succession to power is enshrined in its laws. A number of Israeli officials told me that any adversaries of Israel, including Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, or militant Palestinians, that initiate violent hostilities against Israel to deflect attention from their own problems, will face a rude awakening. The Israeli retaliation, they emphasized, will be swift and unforgiving because the country’s military command structure is in place, and when national security is threatened, political differences are totally forgotten. That said, Israel’s defense establishment and the Palestinian Authority must take extraordinary measures to allow each other to conduct their respective elections in a calm atmosphere and so avoid playing into the hands of extremists in both camps who are ready to seize the spoils.
The prospect of a power transition in Israel could not have come at a more momentous hour for Israel itself, the Palestinians, and the entire Middle East. But although Israel has experienced more than its share of adversity and losses, time and again it has risen to the challenge. In that tradition, inside or outside the government, Sharon will be remembered as a leader who charted not only his individual destiny but the destiny of his nation.