WASHINGTON -- The
stroke suffered by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could
prove to be one of the great disasters in the country's near-60-year
history. As I write this, Sharon's condition remains uncertain,
but the severity of his stroke makes it unlikely that he will
survive, let alone return to power. That could be disastrous because
Sharon represented, indeed embodied, the emergence of a rational,
farsighted national idea that seemed poised in the coming elections
to create a stable governing political center for the first time
For a generation,
Israeli politics have offered two alternatives. The left said:
We have to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. The right said:
There's no one to talk to because they don't want to make peace;
they want to destroy us, so we stay in the occupied territories
and try to integrate them into Israel.
The left was given
its chance with the 1993 Oslo peace accords. They proved a fraud
and a deception. The PLO used Israeli concessions to create an
armed and militant Palestinian terror apparatus right in the heart
of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel's offer of an extremely
generous peace at Camp David in the summer of 2000 was met with
a savage terror campaign, the second intifada, that killed a thousand
Jews. (Given Israel's tiny size, the American equivalent would
be 50,000 dead.)
With the left then
discredited, Israel turned to the right, electing Sharon in 2001.
But the right's idea of hanging onto the territories indefinitely
was untenable. Ruling a young, radicalized, growing Arab population
committed to Palestinian independence was not only too costly
but ultimately futile.
Sharon's genius was
to seize upon and begin implementing a third way. With a negotiated
peace illusory and a Greater Israel untenable, he argued that
the only way to security was a unilateral redrawing of Israel's
boundaries by building a fence around a new Israel and withdrawing
Israeli soldiers and settlers from the other side. The other side
would become independent Palestine.
withdrew Israel entirely from Gaza. On the other front, the West
Bank, the separation fence now under construction will give the
new Palestine about 93 percent of the West Bank. Israel's 7 percent
share will encompass a sizable majority of Israelis who live on
the West Bank. The rest, everyone understands, will have to evacuate
back to Israel.
The success of this
fence-plus-unilateral-withdrawal strategy is easily seen in the
collapse of the intifada. Palestinian terror attacks are down
90 percent. Israel's economy has revived. In 2005 it grew at the
fastest rate in the entire West. Tourists are back and the country
has regained its confidence. The Sharon idea of a smaller but
secure and demographically Jewish Israel garnered broad public
support, marginalized the old parties of the left and right, and
was on the verge of electoral success that would establish a new
political center to carry on this strategy.
The problem is that
the vehicle for this Sharonist centrism, his new Kadima Party,
is only a few weeks old, has no institutional structure, and is
hugely dependent on the charisma of and public trust in Sharon.
To be sure, Kadima
is not a one-man party. It immediately drew large numbers of defectors
from the old left and right parties (Labor and Likud), including
Cabinet members and members of Parliament. It will not collapse
overnight. But Sharon's passing from the scene will weaken it
in the coming March elections and will jeopardize its future.
Sharon needed time, perhaps just a year or two, to rule the country
as Kadima leader, lay down its institutional roots and groom a
new generation of party leaders to take over after him.
This will not now
happen. There is no one in the country, let alone in his party,
with his prestige and standing. Ehud Olmert, his deputy and now
acting prime minister, is far less likely to score the kind of
electoral victory that would allow a stable governing majority.
an idea whose time has come. But not all ideas whose time has
come realize themselves. They need real historical actors to carry
them through. Sharon was a historical actor of enormous proportion,
having served in every one of Israel's wars from its founding
in 1948, having almost single-handedly saved Israel with his daring
crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and now
having broken Israel's left-right political duopoly that had left
the country bereft of any strategic ideas to navigate the post-Oslo
world. Sharon put Israel on the only rational strategic path out
of that wreckage. But, alas, he had taken his country only halfway
there when he himself was taken away. And he left no Joshua.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group