Following the Sharon Way

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

This much is clear: Whoever follows Ariel Sharon will follow Ariel Sharon.

Sharon himself followed no one. In the army he was famous for not following orders. Later, in various governmental posts, he did pretty much as he pleased -- building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, plunging into Lebanon, deserting one political party for another (even Likud, the one he helped form), and ultimately reversing himself by dismantling the Gaza settlements and abandoning Gaza itself. As opposed to too many Israelis, he had an ideology that was simple: Deal with reality. A great leader masters the possible.

Consider Charles de Gaulle. In 1958 he quite literally answered the call of France's Algerian colonialists and came out of retirement to resume the premiership. Immediately he flew to Algiers and told a cheering crowd, "I have understood you." The crowds were one thing, reality something else. Within a year, de Gaulle had proposed "self-determination" for Algeria.

In the end, Sharon made a similar accommodation with reality -- actually several of them. The first was demographic: The 8,000 Jews of the Gaza Strip could not hold the place without the army, and to the army, not to mention much of Israel itself, the place was not worth it. Gaza, with more than 1.4 million Palestinians, was abandoned.

No doubt Sharon was going to do something similar with the West Bank. He could not -- he would not -- simply abandon it, because the West Bank has in abundance the religious and historical significance that Gaza sorely lacks. Certain settlements would be retained, East Jerusalem too, but the rest was not possible to keep. Here, too, demographics dictated the outcome: too few Jews, too many Arabs and not a chance of catching up. (The Palestinian birthrate is more than double the Jewish one.) There is yet another reality, and it is too often overlooked: the quality of Palestinian leadership. Not to put too fine a point on it, their politicians make for lousy negotiating partners. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, is a realist himself. For that reason, he has not moved against the plethora of armed militias and outright gangs that roam the Gaza Strip. Any attempt to disarm them would probably cost Abbas his life, but, lucky for him, he seems disinclined to try. In October Sharon told me that he thinks Abbas's heart is in the right place; others say it's his guts that have been misplaced.

Whatever the case, there's no doubt that Abbas is ineffectual. He cannot control his own borders; he cannot control his own police forces. He cannot control his spending and the growth of the public-sector payroll. A once-promising and prosperous Palestinian society has become deeply dysfunctional and astonishingly corrupt. Since the Oslo accords of 1993, Palestinians have received an abundance of international aid. Where has it gone? Europeans and others may exalt Palestinians, but Sharon has a distinctly less romantic view of them. The Palestinians' worst enemy is not Israel but their own inept and corrupt leadership.

Sharon also reversed himself about Israel's controversial security barrier. He opposed it once, but no longer. It goes up -- here a wall, there a fence. In some places, the barrier has isolated Palestinian communities -- and that is wrong -- and it certainly has created hardships. But the barrier itself is a perfectly rational response to a perfectly insane situation: terrorism. Israel is doing what any gated community in America has done. Once again, reality.

A popular toy among Sharon's generation of Israeli parents was called " nachum takum " -- lie down, get up. You know it: the toy you knocked down and it bounced right up again. That's Sharon himself and that, I think, was his grand strategy. After all, so much of what he attempted failed -- and sometimes, as with the invasion of Lebanon, tragically. He had been on the political left, the right and, more recently, the middle. He demolished what he himself built -- settlements, political parties, grand plans -- but he bounced right up to try something else: nachum takum .

This must be the strategy of the Israeli politicians who follow Sharon, including the underrated Ehud Olmert, and even Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Sharon's old Likud Party. Any of them will find demographic, cultural and political reality impinging at every turn, restricting options until, finally, there is only one: a unilateral imposition of the plan the Palestinians cannot accept and the Israelis cannot anymore afford to reject. This, in the end, was the Sharon Plan. Whoever follows him will follow it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

This article also appeared in the New York Daily News on Wednesday, January 11, 2006 and in the Miami Herald on Saturday, January 14, 2006.