On a January night eight years ago, I dined with a visiting American friend in a tiny downtown Jerusalem restaurant that happened to be a few hundred meters from the official residence of the prime minister—at that time, Ariel Sharon. A national election was a couple of months off, and Sharon had just led his loyalists out of the Likud to form a new party. Polls showed he'd win re-election in a breeze. Then again, he was under investigation in a complex bribery case.
"Think he'll be indicted before the election?" my friend asked.
"Who knows?" I answered. "The age of prophets ended a long time ago. It's a bad idea to make predictions."
Late in the evening, I got home and glanced at a news site. Sharon had just had a massive stroke, a headline shouted. A few weeks earlier he'd suffered a smaller stroke. After that, a cautious man would have spent his nights at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, just minutes away from the hospital. Sharon—78 years old, terribly overweight, willing to take instructions from no one—preferred his farm in southern Israel. No one had ever accused him of caution, in any matter. Medical commentators suggested that if he'd been treated more quickly for the second stroke, he might have stood a chance of waking up.
An international force of journalists invaded the country, set up camp outside the hospital, waited for him to die—and then drifted away. Defying predictions, Sharon remained comatose but alive for eight years.
Thus he broke one last bit of protocol. Usually when an infamous politician departs this world, it takes years before we can begin to measure the evil that lived after him. Sharon left the arena but remained technically alive, so that as he was buried we could already see the proportions of the lasting damage he caused. It's a matter of history, not prognostication.
To be sure, Sharon was not the sole mover of events. He did not, for instance, invent Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, nor the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from them. But his role was indeed oversized. In particular, the obstacles he placed in front of peace efforts loom even larger today than they did eight years ago.
Sharon was known as a man who loved maps. As the minister in charge of settlement after the Likud took power in 1977, he also redrew maps. He worked according to "battalion-level calculations regarding the value of territory" and of hilltops, as strategic analyst Yossi Alpher once explained. In a conversation with Alpher, Sharon had spread out a map and showed how he placed settlements between Palestinian communities to keep them from uniting. He placed corridors of settlement slicing through the West Bank to fragment it and make sure it could never become independent.
After the Oslo accords, the Israeli government stopped establishing new settlements. Yet Sharon, even while serving as a cabinet member and later prime minister, encouraged young settler activists to set up "outposts" on hilltops, in defiance not just of international law but also of Israel's own laws. The goal was to fill in the gaps between existing settlements. Take a look at a detailed map of settlement (like this one from the B'Tselem human-rights organization) and you can see the result: Israel is entwined in the West Bank. The snarls of settlement have kept growing even after the Sharon era. Even Israelis who want a two-state agreement wonder if they can be removed. Israel is like a cop who is handcuffed to a prisoner and has lost the key; the guard is also captive.
In the late 1980s, as minister of trade and industry, Sharon took time from building settlements to create Israeli industrial parks in the West Bank. Only after he was gone did the world begin to pay serious attention. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni recently warned that unless Israel reaches a two-state agreement, recently declared boycotts of settlement products will lead to boycotts of Israel itself. Livni, now a fervent two-state advocate, was once part of Sharon's political circle. To the best of my knowledge, she has not mentioned how he laid the groundwork for the boycotts. I don't claim to have read every word she's spoken in public.
As prime minister, Sharon finally decided on a tactical retreat—from pieces of occupied territory, and from his own position of permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza. But his idea of a Palestinian state in pieces of the West Bank appeared to be a somewhat upgraded version of his earlier plan for "autonomy enclaves," itself a concept that bore a striking resemblance to bantustans. While pulling Israel's military and its settlements out of Gaza in 2005, he avoided negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. A peace accord would have included agreed security arrangements with international backing but would have required a much bigger West Bank pullout than Sharon wanted.
Without a peace deal, Palestinian public opinion largely saw Hamas's strategy of violence, rather than Abbas's of diplomacy, as bringing the pullout. Three weeks after Sharon's stroke, Hamas won the legislative elections in the Palestinian Authority—the start of the chain of events leading to the movement's takeover of Gaza the following year and the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.
So Sharon helped build two more obstacles to peace that became glaringly visible after his stroke. Though Hamas rule is a product of his unilateralism, rocket fire from Gaza has provided the Israeli right with an argument against a negotiated departure from the West Bank. And one of the questions hanging over the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is how a peace pact could include Gaza—or bring an end to the conflict while Gaza remains a base of rejectionism.
Because of the strange manner of Sharon's death, we know what his impact was on the first eight years after passing. But it would be a mistake to assume that the hurdles he created can never be torn down. Perhaps it requires as much determination to make peace as he exerted to prevent it. It would be as unwise to predict unending conflict as it would have been to forecast election results on a night in early January eight years ago.