Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday, will no doubt be mourned by many Israelis not only as a ferocious general and veteran of the country’s major wars but as an almost paternal guarantor of its security in his last years as Prime Minister.
That view will be shared by few, if any, Palestinians. For many he understandably remains the most inimical of all Israeli leaders, a ruthless commander who caused civilian deaths in Gaza and the West Bank, the minister with the ultimate blame for the 1982 massacres of Sabra and Chatila, and the leading architect of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories.
Yet the Israeli leadership has actually shifted to the right since his stroke eight years ago. The present Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was the leading politician to oppose the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. That life in Gaza, aptly described in 2010 by David Cameron as a “prison camp”, remains as miserable as ever does not alter the fact that whatever his motives, Sharon’s extraction of the settlers from the territory remains the one precedent for withdrawal from the West Bank, which is a sine qua non of a lasting peace with the Palestinians.
As the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, struggles to create a framework for that peace, speculation about what might have been is probably pointless. Sharon’s former closest lieutenant, Dov Weisglass, has been a persistent critic of the present government’s stance, including most recently of its determination to maintain an unnecessary long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that Sharon would now be making a deal.
What can be said about Sharon is that by deserting Likud and forming a new party in 2005, he was prepared to elevate a strategic decision he saw as being in Israel’s interests above the comforting unity of his political tribe. Netanyahu has shown no sign of following his example. But unless he does so, the hopes of a just peace are slim indeed.