It was not so many years ago that he was a national and international pariah, barred from ministerial office, reviled and spent. Yet ours is a changed and uncertain country without him at its helm, and many Israelis feel thoroughly bereft without his massive, overwhelming presence.
His convictions altered utterly in recent years. The architect and advocate of Jewish settlement in territories we captured in the 1967 war became the only prime minister to forcibly dismantle long-established communities there; Yitzhak Rabin never did that. But if politicians changing their spots is commonplace, what was unique about Sharon was the assurance he managed to exude that his new convictions were the sensible ones, and never mind what he had advocated before.
Sharon was on the brink of making history here and winning three successive elections not by following a consistent political path. Anything but. He was striding to victory because, unlike any of his rivals, ordinary men and women with ordinary frailties and flaws, he had persuaded Israelis that he was of a different league, a political superman, immune to the limitations of other mortals. He was by no means universally admired, but he had a vast middle ground of confused Israelis wanting to believe that he knew what he was doing — that he, and only he, could steer the country to security and tranquility.
He achieved this following despite never fully detailing the course he was pursuing; indeed, that very vagueness was one of the secrets of his popularity. Trust me, the implicit message ran. Keep me in power, and everything will be all right.
And the Israeli public was ready to do so — notwithstanding that history of zigzagging, and more. By rights, he should have alienated just about every voter by now — the Left by invading Lebanon, the Right by leaving Gaza, the environmentalists by throwing the bulldozers at every housing problem, not to mention most everyone who expects standards of integrity from their leaders by allegedly playing fast and loose with campaign finance laws and embroiling himself in a series of unsavory financial and influence-trading escapades.
Despite all that, more Israelis were backing him than any of his rivals — a reflection not only of the power and resonance of Sharon’s personality, but of the perceived paucity of the alternatives.
Had he specified exactly what policies he intended to follow, come cleaner with the electorate, he would have been doing our democracy a service, and he would, of course, have left far less of a vacuum now. He would also have dented that extraordinary perception, so widely felt, of his own indispensability.
But no man is indispensable. And no man can forever defy those mortal limitations — no matter how lightly he may shrug off the unavoidable toll of advancing years, or dismiss the particular strains of an unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits, or appear so easily to shoulder the uniquely onerous burden of leading embattled Israel.
Sharon’s self-declared personal ambition to set Israel’s permanent borders will not be realized now. Time has run out on that dream. History turned too slowly for him.
And as is always the way, the spotlight now moves on, and the question of Sharon’s abiding influence hinges on what happens inside the vehicle, Kadima, that he had assembled and tailored to his personal political contours.
Just a few days ago, he scolded Ehud, Tzipi and the other Kadima children for squabbling over who was daddy’s favorite, telling them to put their egos aside and remember that he would be running things for many years to come. Orphaned, they face the immense test of political life without him.
Though Kadima was all too plainly Sharon’s party, it has a logic that potentially survives his leadership.
Amir Peretz heads a Labor Party that, as he noted just a few days ago, overflows with ex-security chiefs. But while both his desire to alleviate economic inequalities and his positions on peacemaking will bring him some support, his own inexperience in defense-related issues, indeed his lack of any ministerial-level experience, limits his appeal.
The Likud, meanwhile, has resolved its internal conflict and returned to some of its traditional positions under new-old leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Many longtime supporters will have sighed with relief that Sharon’s departure and Netanyahu’s succession had put an end to the aberration of the past two years, when a party dedicated to thwarting the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River was led by a prime minister with the opposite intent. But others, who had embraced what they saw as Sharon’s pragmatism, will have been alienated.
Between those Labor and Likud poles, the same electorate that was so masterfully wooed by Sharon now waits and worries.
The cynics derided Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon and Tzahi Hanegbi as opportunists united only by their sense that Ariel Sharon represented their best ticket to continued political power and influence. A descent into bickering over the succession, replete with the kind of personal mudslinging that Sharon had sought to nip in the bud, will vindicate those critics and destroy Kadima electorally. Not so, however, a consensual organization of the Knesset slate, championing the platform Kadima’s members say has long been taking shape.
The electorate will tolerate far less from other Kadima leaders of the calibrated vagueness they forgave in Sharon. At the same time, the party will necessarily lose support the more clearly it sets out its positions. But there is, nonetheless, a wide swath of central ground that Sharon bestrode and that Kadima could still occupy if it were to try to derive positive momentum from his decline.
His rivals will seek to prevent Kadima’s flourishing now. Will the fact that the prime minister so dominated that nascent party now doom it? Or will his colleagues demonstrate that there is life for Ariel Sharon’s party, and his vaguely defined vision, without Ariel Sharon?
David Horovitz is editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post