Ariel Sharon was a major figure in Israel’s public consciousness even before his daredevil brilliance on the battlefield in the Yom Kippur War made him something of a legend. His political career polarized public opinion. He was the Right’s champion of settlement- building and uncompromising bludgeoner of Israel’s enemies. For the Left he was the architect of the overreaching blunder that was the First Lebanon War and was indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. And they didn’t love the settlement building, either.

As prime minister during the second intifada, he was the right leader at the right time. The vast majority of Israel’s public was united in the belief that Yasser Arafat had shown his true colors in rejecting the unprecedented two-state offer of the Clinton Plan and embracing violence once again. They wanted a leader uninterested in the international community’s entreaties to get back to peace talks, and unconcerned at international opinion when taking military action to stop the wave of suicide bombers sowing terror in the cafes and buses of Israel’s major cities.

Having been such a divisive figure, he became a hugely popular, unifying prime minister. That is, until the summer of 2005, when he turned his own political history on its head and, with the same irresistible determination with which he propelled settlement-building in the 1980s, dealt the most devastating blow yet to the settlement movement, ending Israel’s 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip.

This was less of an ideological volte-face than it appeared. Sharon was never a dogmatic believer in Greater Israel. He came to the Likud not through Menachem Begin’s Herut party but via a more circuitous route that began on the hawkish wing of the Labor movement. His Zionism was not that of Ze’ev Jabotinsky but of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan.

He became the consummate “bitchonist” – from the Hebrew word for “security.” Everything would be seen through the prism of how best to defend the state. For most of his political life, this meant making sure that Israel held as much territory as possible. The settlements were essential to his plan to keep control of the land. He wasn’t changing his essential philosophy when he announced the “Disengagement Plan” in a speech to a stunned crowd in 2003, he’d simply decided that the means of fulfilling it were now different.

In some ways he was no different from other prime ministers who made serious efforts to withdraw from occupied territory. Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak before him, and Ehud Olmert after him, were not Peace Now lefties. All of them arrived at the conclusion that Israel’s future depended on ending its rule of another people, on disentangling Israel from the Palestinians and establishing clear, defensible and internationally recognized borders for the state. They were not fighting for the cause of the Palestinian national movement, but for the future of the Jewish national movement; for Zionism.

They recognized that the future of a Jewish democratic state depended on Jewish demographic superiority, within secure borders; not on a Jewish state necessarily occupying all of the land of Eretz Israel. They knew also that Israel’s place among its allies in the liberal democratic west would not survive the permanent denial of civil rights to 2.5 million Palestinians under Israeli control.

Where Sharon differed from these three was in his abiding suspicion of Palestinian intentions and his refusal to even attempt negotiations with them. The Kadima party he founded was intended to be a “center” party in a very real sense: it accepted the Likud’s assessment of the true nature of our “peace partners,” but also Labor’s insistence that the occupation of the Palestinians had to end.

Kadima ran in the 2006 elections – without Sharon after his stroke – on a platform of further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank.

Today, the signs are there that a true Palestinian peace partner remains elusive. The Palestinian price just for sitting down to negotiate was the release of murderers responsible for the most barbaric atrocities against Israeli civilians. It is hardly encouraging that they were feted as heroes by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas upon their return home.

Either Abbas personally supports what these terrorists did, or he’s playing to public opinion. Neither option is great cause for confidence going into peace talks.

And while one can debate the merits of Netanyahu’s call for the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, it has had the instructive effect of prompting the following, unambiguous Palestinian response: “We will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” So even if a peace agreement is signed, the Palestinians simply will not recognize, however grudgingly, the right of the Jewish people to sovereignty on any portion of this land.

A unilateral withdrawal does not have to mean a repeat of the Gaza disengagement. Lessons can be learned: from a phased evacuation of settlers, to keeping an IDF presence in certain positions until such a time as the Palestinians are willing to sign up to permanent peace.

At the end of Sharon’s actionpacked, relentlessly controversial life, it may just be that the most significant part of his legacy was what transpired in his last few months as prime minister. He set the precedent and laid out the vision for a unilateral setting of Israel’s borders and the end of Israeli rule over the Palestinians: the securing of a Jewish and democratic state.

The writer is director of the Israel Government Fellows program, an international leadership and educational program for Jewish graduates. He previously worked at the Embassy of Israel in London, where he served in the public affairs department and as the ambassador’s speechwriter.

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