Analysis: Sharon's legacy

First security, then peace.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has lumbered across the country's military and political stage for more than half a century, often casting a larger-than-life shadow. Sharon - perhaps intentionally, perhaps by default - did not leave a successor. In the five years of his premiership, Sharon oversaw - indeed orchestrated - a paradigmatic shift in the way the country views the conflict with the Arabs and its possible solutions. And not only this country - he was also responsible for a fundamental change in the way the US administration views the situation as well. When Sharon took over from Ehud Barak in 2001, Palestinian violence was going a long way toward disabusing many Israelis of the notion that peace was something that could be achieved overnight through the signing of treaties, and that a century-old conflict could end magically in a few months. Yet there was still a lingering perception among large swaths of the population that security was a natural corollary to signed peace agreements, and that there was internal logic to a formula that said first the warring sides would shake hands on the White House lawn, and then security would naturally follow. Sharon put an end to that illusion. By insisting in the early days of his term on an end to terrorism before continuing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Sharon ushered in a new formula that posited not peace first and then security, but rather first security and then peace. Not first shake hands with Yasser Arafat and then the killing would stop, but rather first stop blowing up our children, and then we can negotiate. Not only did this formula resonate loudly with an Israeli population dealing with basic existential questions like how to get the children back home safely from school each night, but it also received the imprimatur of US President George W. Bush in his seminal speech on the Middle East in June 2002. In that speech Bush accepted the idea that first the Palestinians must put an end to the terrorism, and then negotiations toward a two-state solution would follow. What flowed from this speech was the road map, to which Sharon genuinely pledged allegiance. Sharon adopted the road map well aware of the commitments it placed on Israel, but also realizing that it set up a new sequence: first security, then negotiations. First the PA must dismantle the terrorist organizations (and Israel must end settlement construction), and then - and only then - was there room to negotiate. To understand the degree to which this formula has permeated Israeli political discourse, look at how quickly Labor Party leader Amir Peretz jettisoned Oslo as a campaign theme after being advised to do so less than a week after he was elected. Oslo, and the formula that underpinned it, simply no longer resonated with the public. Another key shift that Sharon ushered in was, as his political consultant Eyal Arad pointed out last month, a move away from the land-for-peace formula that had dominated discussions about the Israeli-Arab conflict since it was enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 just after the Six Day War. Sharon concluded that giving up land doesn't buy peace, and that while the Palestinians wanted more than land, the Israelis realized that what was achievable was far less than peace. Instead, the formula he adopted was independence for security. The Palestinians get their state, and Israel - either with or without Palestinian help - gets security. If it was only land that the Palestinians were after, they could have had it long ago - from Menachem Begin's autonomy ideas to the Oslo Accords. But they desired more than land, they wanted independence on that land. And Israelis realized that since peace was a long way off, something that would entail a change in attitudes that would take generations to bring about, they needed something in the interim - security. Israel was willing to give up land at Oslo, and more land at Camp David, and even more land after that at Taba. But what it received in return was the worst wave of terrorism in its history. Sharon's conclusion from Oslo was that land doesn't buy peace. As a result, the new formula Sharon adopted was independence for security, and if the Palestinians couldn't provide that security, Israel would do so itself. He thereby also ushered in unilateralism, rather than the until-then-sacred idea of bilateralism as manifest through negotiations. And it was in this independence-for-security trade-off that Sharon was willing to sacrifice the Greater Israel ideology of his pre-premiership days, because in his mind this ideology no longer enhanced security. In all of the arguments Sharon and his advisers used in explaining disengagement from the Gaza Strip, they never said it would bring peace. They said disengagement would in the long run enhance Israel's security by getting the soldiers and the settlers out of a region where it was impossible to protect them; that it would ensure demographic security by lopping 1.4 million Palestinians off Israel's shoulders and thereby making sure the country remained a democratic Jewish state for at least another generation; and that it would enhance the country's long-term security (especially now in view of a nuclear threat from Iran) by tying Israel more closely to the US. But Sharon, who said repeatedly that he "knows" the Arabs and realizes that they have never accepted Israel's presence in the region, never said leaving Gaza would buy peace. Few people ever accused him of being na ve. Sharon the leader has indeed sent out a clear diplomatic message, and it is this message - not only his leadership and personality - that resonated so deeply with a nation preoccupied over the last five years with simply figuring out how to survive here. Sharon provided a new blueprint for doing just that, and the nation overwhelmingly bought it.