Benny Morris: In the Shadow of Sharon

Roundup: Historians' Take

IT is too early to assess Ariel Sharon's legacy. To be sure, he will be remembered as one of Israel's great field commanders, the wily, bulldozing general who cracked the Egyptian bastion at Um Katef-Abu Awgeila in 1967 and led the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, turning the tables in the Yom Kippur War. With greater ambiguity, he will go down as the defense minister who orchestrated the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that, paradoxically, set Yasir Arafat on the road to Oslo and (however insincerely) peace with Israel.

Mr. Sharon will also be known as the chief architect of the Likud Party's settlement drive in the occupied territories. His defeat, as prime minister, of the second Palestinian intifada will doubtless be carefully studied, once the hysteria and hype die down, as a model of a relatively clean, successful counterinsurgency.

But that is for the future. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharon's stroke has plunged Israel and the region into deep confusion.

Just a few days ago, there were a handful of certainties. All the polls indicated that in the coming Israeli general elections, scheduled for late March, Mr. Sharon's new Kadima Party would win handily, reinstalling him in the premiership. It was not clear how large a mandate he would enjoy or who would be his coalition partners. But a Sharon-led Israel was a certainty.

Another certainty was that his next term in office would be shadowed by the corruption investigation and charges that have already forced the resignation of his son, Omri Sharon, from the Knesset. But again, this scandal was not expected to be a coalition- or career-breaker: Israeli society has become too jaded, or simply faces too many existential problems, to give much weight to personal miscreancy.

Most important, there was a vague certainty that there would be further steps toward a pacification of Israel-Palestine and a separation of its two warring tribes into two relatively homogeneous states. Mr. Sharon had shown the way, courageously, remorselessly, six months ago with the uprooting of the Jewish settlements and the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the Gaza Strip. And he had shown the way, in defiance of often absurd and mendacious criticism by the Palestinians and their supporters, by pushing forward with the construction of the barrier - overwhelmingly a fence, not a wall - between the Arab West Bank and (Jewish) Israel more or less along the 1967 Green Line....

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