He may be missed
Israel needed—and still needs—a man like Ariel Sharon to bludgeon a path to peace
HOW strange that a man widely reviled for most of his adult life as a warmonger, even by many of his fellow Israelis, might have been the one to bring about a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs—and a proper state for Palestine—had he survived in fair health for another five years or so as prime minister.
Ariel Sharon, who died on January 11th after lying in a coma for eight years following a stroke that struck him down at the height of his political powers, was a man of moral as well as physical courage.
He was a man of vision, too—an example to the current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
For many years Mr Sharon saw Israelas a fortress to be defended so ferociously that no Arab could hope to destroy it.
When, as prime minister, he dramatically changed tack by deciding to evacuate the Gaza Strip, evicting thousands of Jewish settlers for whom he had previously been the doughtiest champion, he faced down Israel's hard right.
It was an act of courage as well as pragmatism.
At the time he sought to persuade the outraged settlers and their influential lobby that he would not then proceed to wrest the West Bankfrom their grip, handing it back to the Palestinians as the basis of their state.
But he might well have changed his mind on this score, too.
The dilemma Mr Sharon had the courage to confront in 2005 is the same one that Mr Netanyahu keep on running away from.
If Israelis to remain a democracy, it cannot indefinitely occupy theWest Bankwhile also denying the Palestinians full political rights in a Greater Israel.
Yet a Palestinian majority—and the demography is heading that way—would mean the end ofIsraelas a predominantly Jewish state.
If Israel wants to remain both Jewish and a democracy, the only workable alternative is to give the Palestinians a state of their own, thereby accepting that Israel must vacate most of that hallowed land on the West Bank. Giving upGazawas the first step.
What Mr Sharon would have done, nobody knows for certain.
Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Mr Sharon at the head of the party he founded, came tantalisingly close to clinching a deal on theWest Bank.
Looking at other comparably bloodstained conflicts, the most durable peace deals tend to be reached by seasoned warriors rather than doe-eyed pacifists.
Can Bibi match Arik?
Mr Netanyahu, an artful populist serving his third stint as prime minister, is neither warrior nor pacifist.
In theory, he has accepted that only a proper Palestinian state will secureIsrael's future, but he has failed to show the enthusiasm and flexibility needed to achieve it.
The settlements keep expanding.
Even now, withAmerica's secretary of state, John Kerry, as mediator, the Likud party led by Mr Netanyahu has yet officially to accept the idea of a two-state solution.
And he has other excuses.
Like Mr Sharon, he is boxed in by powerful extremists in his ruling coalition; the head of one of his main partner-parties is dead against it.
The Palestinians are weak and divided.
Israel, in comparison with its turbulent Arab neighbours, is prosperous, stable and—in the short run, anyway—secure.
So why should Mr Netanyahu bother to give in to those tiresome Palestinians—and risk being tossed out of office by an angry alliance driven by the West Bank settlers?
The answer is that doing anything else is merely playing for time.
The moment to strike a deal is when you possess most of the cards.
Mr Sharon understood that. He forced his way down a path towards peace, even if it meant losing old comrades and picking up new ones on the way.
If Mr Netanyahu wants to be mourned in the same way, he should dwell on that.