Ariel's Exit

“Do you know why you're the one who does all the operations? Because you never ask for written orders. Everyone else wants explicit clarifications. But … you just do it,” Moshe Dayan said to Ariel Sharon half a century ago, explaining why the two young officers got on so well. The comment also hints at why Sharon and George W. Bush got along famously as national leaders.

At the time, Dayan was Israel's chief of staff and Sharon was head of the paratroops, assigned to carry out cross-border raids in retaliation for Arab attacks. Counting on the same kind of cooperation, Sharon would write, Dayan assigned him to break a Palestinian insurgency in Gaza in 1971. Sharon would do what was required, by his own methods -- call them daring or reckless -- and leave no paper trail leading to those who wanted the job done.

Another implication is that Sharon had orders or agreement for all his actions. In fact, as officer and then politician, he earned a reputation for deception and for acting in ways that at times exceeded authority. Since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, for instance, debate has continued over whether then-Defense Minister Sharon mislead Prime Minister Menachem Begin on the goals of the war: Presented as a limited operation, it was actually intended to reshape Lebanon and the Middle East. By most accounts, though, Sharon did learn from that disastrous war that Israel needed American assent for major moves.

So when Sharon became prime minister in February 2001 just after Bush entered the White House, he had qualities designed to make him not only an ally but a friend: He preferred unilateral action, particularly military action, to diplomacy; he had no desire to see America pushing peace negotiations; but he was willing to coordinate his moves with Washington.

In short, Sharon was eager to get the job done on his own, without Bush's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The massive stroke that ended Sharon's political career last week, therefore, was another piece of bad news for the Bush administration. Depending on Israel's volatile politics, Sharon's exit could even create pressure for the Bush team to get involved in a peace effort -- an outcome it has devoutly sought to avoid for five years.

Bush and Sharon came to power after the collapse of the Oslo peace process, which Bill Clinton had nurtured. The breakdown was not Clinton's fault -- and indeed, in his last weeks in office, Clinton laid down what remain the sharpest guidelines yet formulated for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

For Bush, though, drastically scaling back the U.S. diplomatic role fit the impulse to reverse all Clinton policies. And, it seems, Bush resonated entirely with Sharon's personality. Sharon wanted to crush the new Palestinian uprising by force and avoid negotiations; the president would show that he, too, thought the Mideast was best rearranged by troops and bombs.

As the Bush administration geared up for invading Iraq, however, it faced international demands to present a wider Mideast strategy that included the Israelis and Palestinians. The result was the “road map” for peace. If followed, it would have required deep U.S. diplomatic involvement leading to creation of a Palestinian state. That was probably beyond the Bush team's abilities -- and would have alienated the president's Christian Right constituency, dedicated to leaving the entire Holy Land in Israeli hands.

Sharon solved the dilemma. His decision to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip was a new, grand example of “just doing it.” Apparently persuaded by his deputy and confidant Ehud Olmert, the old hawk realized that Israel could not hold onto all the occupied territories. To maintain a state with a Jewish majority it would have to pull back. But Sharon did not want to talk to the Palestinians. They would demand more than he wanted to give. The withdrawal was unilateral. Afterward, he split his Likud party and began a campaign for reelection based on the promise to set Israel's final borders -- presumably, as Israel saw fit.

As long as Sharon was acting, Bush had a pretext for staying on the sidelines. Officially, the road map remained U.S. policy. In practice, nothing was done to implement it. Washington ignored the expansion of West Bank settlements, which violated the road map's provisions. Nor did Bush push Sharon to dismantle the small settlements known as “outposts,” as required under the plan.

Now Sharon is lying in a Jerusalem hospital. The Sharon era, it appears, is over. Without Sharon, his new political party -- probably with Olmert at the head -- faces a tougher election battle against ex-Premier Benjamin Netanyahu on the right and Labor's Amir Peretz on the left.

If Netanyahu wins, any further Israeli pullback from the West Bank will be shelved. The Israeli-Palestinian problem will be harder for Washington to avoid. But if pressured to revive the road map, Netanyahu is likely to seek support from the Christian Right, as he has done in the past. Bush could find his base in revolt.

Peretz also wants to dump the road map -- in favor of immediate negotiations with the Palestinians on a two-state solution. For advocates of peace, that will be excellent news. The Bush administration, which will inevitably be asked to provide diplomatic auspices, is likely to be less happy.

Olmert appears more committed to further pullbacks than Sharon himself was. But without Sharon's military record, he may need the legitimacy provided by a peace agreement -- or by American guarantees -- for giving up land.

Sharon's exit, therefore heralds uncertainty, and at least a whiff of hope for a return to diplomacy. Bush, we can be sure, is sincerely sad to see him go.

Gershom Gorenberg is a senior correspondent for the Prospect. He is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, to be published in March by Times Books.

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