What if Ariel Sharon had not suffered a stroke and sunk into a coma eight years ago this month? For Israelis who believe only Sharon could have confronted Jewish settlers in the West Bank and drawn the country’s final borders, the question surfaced again with his death on Saturday in a Jerusalem hospital of multiple organ failure.
Sharon had been at the height of his power in the waning months of 2005. Already prime minister for nearly five years, he had jettisoned his increasingly hawkish Likud party to form a more centrist faction known as Kadima. He seemed headed for an easy re-election in 2006.
He was also more open to territorial compromises than at any time in his long military and political career. Sharon had dismantled all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and another three in the West Bank as part of a “disengagement” from Palestinians several months earlier. He had begun referring to Israel’s rule in the West Bank as an occupation — the term invoked by Israel’s critics and abhorred by Jewish settlers.
With the same hard-charging gusto that characterized his military campaigns, Sharon seemed determined to bring to some resolution the broad uncertainties that had loomed since Israel’s conquests in the 1967 war, specifically: Would Israel maintain a large and disenfranchised minority in its borders or opt for a smaller and more democratic state?
“There’s no question that Gaza was just the first step,” says Dov Weisglass, a lawyer who served as Sharon’s chief of staff. “We already planned in principle some further steps in the West Bank,” he told me this week.
But what kind of resolution would it have been?
Sharon was not a fuzzy peacenik. His previous legacy had been the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a war that got him sacked as defense minister and earned him a moniker that would stick for years: the Butcher of Beirut. In the first two decades of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Sharon did more than any other Israeli leader to encourage settlement building, an enterprise that stands now as one of the biggest obstacles to a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.
Israelis elected Sharon to put down a bloody Palestinian insurrection that he himself helped ignite with a provocative trip to the Temple Mount in September, 2000 — an event I covered as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. The walkabout on what Arabs refer to as Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest shrine, set off riots that spread across the West Bank and Gaza and later waves of suicide bombings in what became known as the second intifada.
A few months after that incident, with Sharon on the verge of an election victory, I interviewed him at his ranch in southern Israel. The thousand-acre plot included a goat shed and a dairy farm, herds of cows and sheep, greenhouses and citrus groves. Sharon, who liked showing journalists around the premises on a small utility vehicle, was more avuncular than the truculent image he projected. But he was not conciliatory on the question of a Palestinian state. “This is a very, very dangerous plan,” he said, referring to then-President Bill Clinton’s proposal for a Palestinian state to rise on more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. “I'd say, without exaggerating, that it would be suicide for Israel."
His five years as prime minister softened Sharon. But it’s difficult to know what combinations of factors prompted his move to the center. Certainly, the violence of the second intifada made it clear that Palestinians would not succumb quietly to ongoing Israeli rule. The warning by four former intelligence chiefs about the dire consequences of diplomatic deadlock was also said to have an impact on Sharon. Some analysts believe his legal trouble over campaign financing accelerated the political shift.
Whatever it was, Sharon seemed poised to carry out a broad realignment of Israeli policy after his re-election. It would likely have involved dismantling more settlements in the West Bank, possibly large numbers of them in outlying areas. And it’s reasonable to assume it would have been carried out according to the model of his Gaza withdrawal – unilaterally. Sharon felt more comfortable determining Israel’s borders on his own than engaging in drawn-out negotiations with the Palestinians.
A pullback in the West Bank would surely have dealt a blow to the settlement movement and perhaps allowed more room for Palestinian self rule. But in withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza, Israel missed an opportunity to shore up the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Unwittingly, it empowered the Islamic Hamas group. Unless Sharon intended to negotiate his plan with the Palestinians, it’s difficult to imagine him pushing the two sides significantly closer to a conflict-ending agreement.
Dan Ephron, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek, is working on a book about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and its impact on Israel.