By Charles Krauthammer, January 6, 2006.
The stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could prove to be one
of the great disasters in the country’s nearly 60-year history. As I write this,
Sharon’s condition remains uncertain, but the severity of his stroke makes it
unlikely that he will survive, let alone return to power.
That could be disastrous because Sharon represented, indeed embodied,
the emergence of a rational, farsighted national idea that seemed poised in the
coming elections to create a stable governing political center for the first time in
For a generation, Israeli politics have offered two alternatives. The left said: We
have to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. The right said: There’s no one to
talk to because they don’t want to make peace; they want to destroy us, so we
stay in the occupied territories and try to integrate them into Israel.
The left was given its chance with the 1993 Oslo peace accords. They proved a
fraud and a deception. The PLO used Israeli concessions to create an armed
and militant Palestinian terrorist apparatus right in the heart of the West Bank
and Gaza Strip.
Israel’s offer of an extremely generous peace at Camp David in the
summer of 2000 was met with a savage terrorism campaign, the second
intifada, that killed a thousand Jews. (Given Israel’s tiny size, the American
equivalent would be 50,000 dead.)
With the left then discredited, Israel turned to the right, electing Sharon in
2001. But the right’s idea of hanging on to the territories indefinitely was
untenable. Ruling a young, radicalized, growing Arab population committed to
Palestinian independence was not only too costly but ultimately futile.
Sharon’s genius was to seize upon and begin implementing a third way. With a
negotiated peace illusory and a Greater Israel untenable, he argued that the only
way to security was a unilateral redrawing of Israel’s boundaries by building a
fence around a new Israel and withdrawing Israeli soldiers and settlers from the
other side. The other side would become independent Palestine.
Accordingly, Sharon withdrew Israel entirely from Gaza. On the other front, the
West Bank, the separation fence under construction will give the new Palestine
about 93 percent of the West Bank. Israel’s 7 percent share will encompass a
sizable majority of Israelis who live on the West Bank. The rest, everyone
understands, will have to evacuate back to Israel.
The success of this fence-plus-unilateral-withdrawal strategy is easily seen in
the collapse of the intifada. Palestinian terrorist attacks are down 90 percent.
Israel’s economy has revived. In 2005, it grew at the fastest rate of the
developed countries. Tourists are back, and the country has regained its
The Sharon idea of a smaller but secure and demographically Jewish
Israel garnered broad public support, marginalized the old parties of the left and
right, and was on the verge of electoral success that would establish a new
political center to carry on this strategy.
The problem is that the vehicle for this Sharonist centrism, his new Kadima
Party, is only a few weeks old, has no institutional structure and is hugely
dependent on the charisma of and public trust in Sharon.
To be sure, Kadima is not a one-man party. It immediately drew large numbers
of defectors from the old left and right parties (Labor and Likud), including
cabinet members and members of parliament. It will not collapse overnight.
But Sharon’s passing from the scene will weaken it in the coming March
elections and will jeopardize its future. Sharon needed time, perhaps just a year
or two, to rule the country as Kadima leader, lay down its institutional roots and
groom a new generation of party leaders to take over after him.
This will not happen. There is no one in the country, let alone in his party, with
his prestige and standing. Ehud Olmert, his deputy and now acting prime
minister, is far less likely to score the kind of electoral victory that would allow
a stable governing majority.
Kadima represents an idea whose time has come. But not all ideas whose time
has come realize themselves. They need real historical actors to carry them
through. Sharon was a historical actor of enormous proportion, having served in
every one of Israel’s wars since its founding in 1948, having almost
single-handedly saved Israel with his daring crossing of the Suez Canal in the
1973 Yom Kippur War, and now having broken Israel’s left-right political
duopoly that had left the country bereft of any strategic ideas to navigate the
Sharon put Israel on the only rational strategic path out of that wreckage. But,
alas, he had taken his country only halfway there when he himself was taken
away. And he left no Joshua.