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What legacy has Ariel Sharon left Israel, and what will be the long-term impact of that legacy on Israel? Since the prime minister was stricken by a stroke last week columnists and commentators have been clamoring to describe Sharon and to define the impact of his years in power on Israel and the Middle East. Disturbingly, most of the commentators have based their views of Sharon's tenure in office on a myth.
The myth of Sharon and his leadership is that over the past two years he redefined the center of Israeli politics. In The Washington Post Charles Krauthammer claimed: "Sharon's genius was to seize upon and begin implementing a third way" (see below). Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Michael Oren argued that Sharon "began his political career on the left, swung keenly right, and concluded in the center." Other conservative commentators, like Peter Berkowitz at The Weekly Standard and James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal's online publication, have made identical and equally false arguments.
It is true that Sharon restructured the political map of Israel over the past two years. But he did not do so by blazing a new path, with a new vision for Israeli politics, society and security. Sharon redefined Israel's political map by embracing the Israeli Left. And in so doing, as one top military official dolefully put it to me in November, "Sharon brought post-Zionism into the mainstream of Israeli public discourse."
FOR YEARS Israel has been divided between Right and Left. The Right argues that given Arab rejectionism of Israel's right to exist, Israel must take all necessary measures to ensure that it is capable of defending itself, by itself, from all threats to its security.
For its part the Left has claimed that Arab rejectionism of Israel is due to Israeli actions and, as a result, the Arabs can and ought to be appeased. To appease the Arabs the Left believes that Israel must transfer territory to the Palestinians and enable the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Until September 2000, when PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat began the Palestinian terror war against Israel, the Israeli Left claimed that the appeasement of the Palestinians had to be conducted in the course of negotiations with the PLO. After its resounding electoral defeat in 2001, the Left updated its policy. The new policy of the Left was the unilateral surrender of territory to the Palestinians.
Like Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak before him, Sharon's political cachet was based on the public's perception of him as a security hawk and a patriot. What differentiated Sharon from Rabin and Barak was not so much his policies, but rather the fact that he came from the rightist Likud rather than the leftist Labor party.
Rabin's adoption of the strategically catastrophic Oslo peace process with the PLO, and Barak's cataclysmically misguided peace offers to Arafat at Camp David and Taba, paved the way for the Palestinian terror war against Israel. These policies provided Israel's enemies with the military means, the territory and the political legitimacy necessary to carry out their war.
Yet the demise of these policies did not leave Israelis without other options. In the 1996 elections, as in 2001 and 2003, Israelis turned to the Likud and the political Right for remedies. Indeed, in 2003 Sharon won his smashing victory for the Likud after militarily reentering the cities of Judea and Samaria to fight terror, and ridiculing the irresponsibility of Labor's proposed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
And then Sharon - for reasons still unknown because Sharon himself refused to explain them - took a sharp leftward turn and adopted the very policies the Israeli electorate had just so resoundingly rejected.
WHILE THE myth of Sharon as a centrist is being propagated by conservative analysts whose sympathies until Sharon's political transformation lay consistently with the Israeli Right, the people who seem most ready to acknowledge the truth are the Leftist commentators. Radical leftist Israeli novelists David Grossman and Amos Oz both embraced Sharon as a man of the Left in commentaries in The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian newspapers over the weekend. Oz wrote, "Sharon's rhetoric changed overnight. First his vocabulary began to sound like that of his rivals."
Sharon's rhetorical shift to the Left was followed by his policy shift in the same direction when, against the backdrop of ever-increasing Palestinian radicalization, he called for and carried out its reconfigured policy of appeasement by unilaterally surrendering Gaza and northern Samaria to Palestinian terrorists. As Oz noted approvingly, "They called him a bulldozer when he planted the settlements, and indeed he acted like a bulldozer when he uprooted them. The evacuation of the Israeli settlers from Gaza was a military operation. Sharon smashed the settlers in Gaza in the same blitzkrieg style in which he won his many wars."
Like Rabin's leftward shift of a decade ago and its attendant handover of territory and power to Palestinian terrorist organizations, Sharon's policies have wrought terrible consequences for Israel's security. Last Friday, even Haaretz's leftist military commentator Amir Oren acknowledged that "the disengagement looked like a failed initiative in most of its aspects."
As IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz acknowledged last week, the army today is at a loss to find adequate responses to the post-withdrawal transformation of Gaza into the largest terrorist base in the Arab world. As well, with the acquisition of an arsenal of missiles and mortars, including Katyusha rockets and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles by the Palestinians, the security fences around both Gaza and Judea and Samaria, which have long been the Left's ultimate answer to Palestinian terrorism, have been proven to be colossally misguided.
Even as it acknowledges this failure, the Left embraces Sharon, as Amir Oren put it, because of "hatred of the settlers... more than from any belief in the wisdom of Sharon."
IT IS true, of course, that Sharon has remade the political map of Israel, just as Rabin did before him. But he did not do so by changing Israelis' basic commitment to their own security. Instead he has made the success of the leftist ostrich policy of "separating" Israel from the Arabs by handing territories to Israel's enemies the central issue of future political campaigns.
Sharon's personal prestige gave the Left a new lease on life, split the Right, delegitimized his political camp both domestically and internationally and weakened Israel's party system. Today, energized by Sharon's unraveling of the Right, Israel's Left has become ever more radicalized. Last week, it was reported that Jeris Jeris, an Israeli Arab member of the Meretz-Yahad party and a former head of the Pasuta village council in the Galilee, had been arrested and charged with spying for Iran.
This is not to say that the party where Jeris hoped to run for Knesset has become a collaborator with Iran. Indeed, its leader announced that he would be happy to join a Sharon-led government. But the fact of the matter is that Meretz - which in 1992 voted for the expulsion of 417 Hamas terrorists to Lebanon - has become so radicalized that an Iranian agent felt he could comfortably operate from within its party apparatus.
The large "centrist" faction Sharon is so hailed for having discovered is little more than a collection of leftists like Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon on the one hand, and opportunistic and non-ideological Likud members like acting premier Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on the other. Sharon has left no coherent vision for the state other than Peres's: further surrender to Palestinian terrorism based on the expulsion of thousands upon thousands of Jews from their homes, in the vain hope that strengthening the enemy will lessen the costs of its war on Israel.
WHATEVER the results of the coming post-Sharon elections may be, one thing is all but certain. Sharon's legacy of adopting the Left's vision of Israeli policy will eventually be abandoned. As was the case with Rabin and Barak before him, Sharon's adoption of the Left's view of Israel's security predicament, based as it is on false assumptions, will reach a point where its failure will no longer be deniable. When this occurs, Israeli voters will elect a rightist government. Hopefully when that happens, the Right will not be induced to repeat Sharon's mistakes.