Wanted: An Arab Sharon
Ariel Sharon's sudden stroke, which has removed him from Israeli politics, has triggered a tidal wave of speculation about who will be his Israeli successor: Ehud Olmert? Bibi Netanyahu? Shimon Peres? So much about the future for Israeli-Arab peace, we are told, rides on that question. But as I think about the post-Sharon Middle East, I find myself asking a different question: Is there an Arab successor to Mr. Sharon? Or, better yet, is there an Arab Sharon?
Even asking such a question may seem incendiary. After all, Ariel Sharon made his name as Israel's most ruthless Arab fighter and unrestrained settlement builder. For many years, that was "Sharonism." So one could easily say that there are many "Arab Sharons": the Arab leaders who have made their names by ruthlessly resisting Israel.
Had Mr. Sharon passed from the scene several years ago, before becoming prime minister, his epitaph would have read: "Israel's most brutal Arab fighter, settlement-builder and hard-liner" - period.
But you can't write his biography without his term as prime minister, which has been his finest and wisest hour. There are not many 77-year-old leaders who not only acknowledge that one of their greatest projects in political life was wrong and posed a dire threat to the future of their people, but then also risk their remaining lives and political careers to reverse it. That, too, must now be called "Sharonism."
So when I ask whether there is an Arab Sharon, I am really asking whether among the Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese and Saudis - the key Middle East nations that have still not reconciled with Israel - there are leaders who are also ready to acknowledge that their lifelong efforts to keep their societies in a state of hostility against Israel, and to demand the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, has been a huge waste and, if not reversed, poses a dire threat to the future of their own societies?
I raise this question with no illusions about Mr. Sharon. The Haaretz newspaper editorialist Gideon Levy summed him up best: "The belated enthusiasm for Sharon is enthusiasm for a clever leader who tried toward the end of his life to extricate himself somehow from situations that a wise leader would never have gotten into in the first place. ...The old Sharon was one who led the country into the most superfluous and harmful of Israel's wars, the Lebanon War, and would not even raise his hand in favor of the peace agreement with Jordan." He was also most responsible for building a network of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that became an unsustainable burden.
So Ariel Sharon the prime minister had a lot of problems to clean up from Ariel Sharon the defense minister and agriculture minister. Indeed, when Mr. Sharon was asked why he'd reversed himself and uprooted the Jewish settlements in Gaza and a few in the West Bank, he famously referred to the prime minister's chair: "You see things from here that you don't see from there." He could finally see that overbuilding settlements imperiled Israel's Jewish and democratic character. So he promptly destroyed the very right-wing party he'd built - Likud - to spread those settlements.
Leadership is not what you do to the other side. That's always easy. It is what you say to your own. Looking your own people in the eye and saying, in deeds if not words, "I was wrong. We have to reverse course" - now, that's leadership.
But Mr. Sharon's change of heart will end this conflict only if there is among Israel's remaining Arab foes an Arab Sharon (another Anwar Sadat or King Hussein) ready to act the same. Yasir Arafat and Hafez al-Assad of Syria were never ready to definitively look their peoples in the eye and tell them the campaign to destroy Israel was over. The old Arafat and the old Assad were just like the young Arafat and the young Assad. No matter how high they rose, they could not see any further for their people.
Mr. Sharon's legacy will be a mixed one. Arafat's and Assad's will be pure - pure mediocrity, and both of their nations are now paying the price.
Mr. Sharon is gone from the scene, but because of the new Israeli center he built, "he left Israel capable of making a decision on the future of the West Bank," said the Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen. Assad and Arafat are gone, and because they never built "a new center or pathway to a new future, both their nations are now in turmoil after they are gone."
I don't know who will succeed Mr. Sharon. I only know that it will be much easier for Israel's next leader to carry out the positive side of his legacy - if a few more Arab Sharons show up in the neighborhood.