Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Mort Zuckerman on Sharon

US News:

Who would have guessed just a few years ago that millions of people around the world, including the vast majority of Israelis, would be praying for Ariel Sharon? The massive hemorrhage that brought such an abrupt halt to the remarkable 50-year career of the last of Israel's founding fathers came, tragically, just as he was on the cusp of his greatest political triumph: the victory of his new political party in national elections that would have afforded the first real chance to settle the final borders of Israel.

I had long worked closely with Sharon since the time that I was a liaison for the Clinton administration with the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, of which Sharon was a member. I learned then that his vision of Israel's national interest always came before his own political interests and that his word was his bond.

Sharon believed that a leader's job is to lead, not to follow the polls. Most Israelis understood clearly that Sharon could be counted on to face down any challenge confronting the country. They also saw that his policies were the result of original, outside-the-box thinking, the same trait that marked him as such a brilliant battlefield tactician and such a cunning foe in Israel's corridors of power.

Israelis also understood that Sharon's convictions were honestly arrived at, and most supported him when he transformed himself from the architect of Jewish settlements in territories captured during the defensive Six-Day War of 1967 to become the only prime minister to dismantle the settler communities there, despite the opposition of the right-wing settlement lobby that he had long ago helped create. Then he proved willing to hand over territory unilaterally to the Palestinians without an agreement, as he did in Gaza--even when he lost the support in his party, his cabinet, and even the parliament--all because he believed this was necessary to preserve Israel's status as a democratic and Jewish state.

Sharon's vision was to be the leader who established Israel's permanent borders. To this end, he abandoned the Likud, the party he had helped establish, because its members opposed disengagement and the settlement withdrawals. In Likud's place, Sharon created a new centrist party called Kadima. It soon attracted politicians from both Labor and Likud, and polling data showed it winning twice as many seats as Labor and three times as many as Likud. Kadima was a one-man party, however, and now the loss of Sharon may prevent this political realignment from occurring, for it will fall to others who lack his stature, credibility, and trust to hold the movement together, never mind putting forward his diplomatic and strategic views. Kadima means "forward," but now, sadly, the way forward is not so clear.

Purpose. Sharon was elected to the prime minister's office in 2001 because of the intifada terrorist campaign. Israelis trusted him to stop it. But this was a war almost nobody believed could be won. Nobody but Sharon, that is. He quickly developed a comprehensive strategy, including retaking the West Bank territories, isolating Yasser Arafat, and assassinating terrorists and their political backers while raising the price of violence so high that many Palestinians began seeking a normal life.

Sharon abandoned the failed policy of trading land for peace, concluding that Israel simply did not have a responsible partner for peace. Instead, he initiated the construction of the still-unfinished security barriers between the West Bank and Israel and began planning the withdrawal from Gaza. In this, Sharon intuitively resonated with the mystic chords of an Israeli public disgusted with the Palestinian culture of terrorism and violence and the Israelis'own presence in the territories. In this way, he captured the deeper sentiments of so many Israelis who long to separate from the Palestinians, with or without an agreement. It was Sharon's unique strength of character that allowed him to put these policies into practice, in the face of almost impossible odds.

Separation and withdrawal were central to Sharon's plans. He simply couldn't imagine waiting for a responsible Palestinian leader to deal with when Hamas is emerging as such a powerful political force and when the Fatah electoral list is headed by a man serving five life sentences for his role in the murder of Israelis.

Sharon will go down as one of the greatest prime ministers in Israel's history, one who restored a sense of direction and moral purpose to his people and became the indispensable man with the strength and vision to realize his goal of final borders for the Jewish state.

Given the chance, Ariel Sharon would have qualified for an honored place in the pantheon of the greatest leaders of his people, joining Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism; Chaim Weizmann, who generated worldwide support for the founding of Israel; and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. Time, tragically, seems to have suddenly run out for this great and good man, but the world will never forget him.