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For Sharon, the Gaza Withdrawal May Determine His Place in History

August 17, 2005
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For better or for worse, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank is certain to be one of the defining moments of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s political career. Sharon will be remembered as the Israeli leader who did the most to build settlements and then, when he became prime minister, tore them down.

But when the history books are written, will the pullout be seen as a bold move that saved Israel — allowing it to remain both Jewish and democratic — or as a wrong turn that divided the nation and exacerbated Palestinian terrorism?

Most Israeli leaders have defining moments associated with them. For David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, the most memorable was his decision to proclaim the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, even though he knew it would lead to a war — one his generals said the Jews had only a 50-50 chance of winning.

Ben-Gurion was active before 1967, the watershed year in Israel’s political history. Since then, Israeli history largely has been the story of a debate over how to use the territorial and psychological gains of the Six-Day War to win Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist and achieve peaceful coexistence.

The right wing argued for holding on to conquered territories to maintain deterrence and to go for peace only after the Arab states recognized Israel. The left favored offering to return most of the territories to spark a peace dynamic. Subsequent prime ministers are remembered largely for their contributions to this dialectic.

Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol, is remembered for stammering in a key address to a frightened nation days before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. For years the perceived nervousness tarred Eshkol as a weak leader.

Though later research did much to rehabilitate Eshkol, a new book by the historian Tom Segev restores his image as a ditherer and blames him for missing a chance for peace with Jordan’s King Hussein that might have sidelined Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization decades ago.

Golda Meir is associated with two failures: the inability to read the signals leading to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and insensitivity toward Israel’s Sephardi underclass. Together these shortcomings generated a process that led to the emergence of Menachem Begin in 1977 as Israel’s first prime minister from the right-leaning Likud Party.

Begin is remembered primarily for the land-for-peace deal he struck with then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat soon after coming to power. He also was able to build an abiding alliance between his Likud Party and the Sephardim. And it was Begin who made the decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, a move that at first was criticized around the world but which, in retrospect, was praised by Western officials as far-sighted.

But Begin too had his failures. The 1982 Lebanon War that was meant to crush the PLO turned sour as Israel got sucked into an occupation that lasted 18 years, at a high cost of soldiers’ lives and international support. Begin resigned as prime minister and remained a recluse until his death, in 1992.

His successor, Yitzhak Shamir — who voted against the peace treaty with Egypt — is remembered for his reluctance to take the peace process forward. “The sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs” was his dictum.

But when Shamir started a peace process with the 1991 Madrid conference that the Israeli public felt he would never complete, they turned again to the left, bringing Yitzhak Rabin to power.

Rabin, the general who led the Israeli Defense Forces to victory in the Six-Day War, is remembered for the Oslo peace process that cost him his life. He was the first Israeli leader to negotiate with the PLO, beginning an ambitious project that was meant to bring recognition from the entire Arab world in return for most of the territory captured in the Six-Day War and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Twelve years later, however, many Israelis have come to believe that Rabin was naive in rehabilitating Arafat as a potential peace partner and even arming him, without clear evidence that he had abandoned terrorism. Many now see Oslo as a carelessly negotiated process that, in retrospect, raises questions about Rabin’s reputation for clear strategic thinking — though it’s not clear how Rabin would have proceeded had he lived to see the peace process unravel.

Oslo’s collapse nearly five years ago brought Sharon to power. His mandate was to crush the armed Palestinian uprising and try a more careful approach to peace that Israelis could live with and Palestinians couldn’t abuse.

When the “road map” peace plan was formulated, for example, Sharon insisted that — unlike Oslo — it be performance-based, meaning that the process would not advance from stage to stage if the Palestinians failed to keep their commitments.

But the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank is the main thrust of Sharon’s approach, and how it turns out will to a large extent determine how he’s remembered.

Sharon’s career so far has had many defining moments: the young officer who created Israel’s first elite commando unit, on which much of the IDF’s fighting doctrine is modeled; the silver-haired general, his head bandaged, crossing the Suez Canal and turning the tide in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the hero turned villain who, as defense minister, misled Begin in the Lebanon War and was forced to resign in disgrace after Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies massacred Palestinians in refugee camps; the inveterate builder of settlements.

Up to this point, Sharon’s political philosophy has been based on peace through projection of power. The current withdrawal is an attempt to marry power — Israel has tired of waiting for a Palestinian partner and now is setting the agenda unilaterally — to the return of land to spark a future peace process.

If it works, Sharon will go down in history as an Israeli de Gaulle, a right-wing general who rolled back an untenable occupation when the cost in soldiers’ lives and international opprobrium became too high. In Sharon’s case, he also will be praised for solving Israel’s demographic problem by paving the way for a smaller Israel with an undisputed Jewish majority.

If it fails, however, and instead of a new peace process Israel gets more and worse terrorism, Sharon will be seen as a gambler who gave in to domestic and international pressure — and lost.

The stakes for Sharon and his place in history are high.

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