Gil Cohen Magen / Courtesy Reuters Ariel Sharon attends a session at the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, March 23, 2005.

The Bulldozer Reverses Course

I was wrong about Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, when I profiled him for Foreign Affairs ("The Last of the Patriarchs," May/June 2002 issue.) I underestimated both his political survivability and his willingness to break away from the status quo. And despite following Sharon's words and deeds for a living, I missed the turning point in autumn 2003, when he unilaterally decided to withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza strip. Coupled with his earlier decision to build a "separation barrier" in the West Bank, the move amounted to a major shift in Israel's Palestinian policy. The signs had been there all along; even my Foreign Affairs article mentioned: "Israel may decide to draw its permanent borders unilaterally and lock up the Palestinians behind fences." But if I could imagine that Sharon would want to hurt the Palestinians, the notion that the former "bulldozer" of the Israeli settlement project would tear down his life creation was beyond belief.

Nevertheless, I was not entirely incorrect. The main pillars of Sharon's policy are as valid today, in his fifth year in office, as they were three years ago. Always the pragmatist, he follows the same dual compass, which has guided him through a tempestuous tenure: keeping domestic consensus and American backing. Indeed, his major twists and turns have happened only when he has felt unsure about one, or both, of his power bases. He launched the West Bank reoccupation campaign in the spring of 2002, overcoming long hesitation, when the Israeli public could not bear the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings any longer. Then followed the construction of the barrier, which Sharon initially opposed. After the Iraq war in 2003, Sharon grudgingly accepted the U.S.-led "road map" for Palestinian statehood when he felt that President George W. Bush's patience was running out. And then when his popularity dropped to its lowest, under a cloud of personal corruption charges and public desperation over the stalemate with the Palestinians, Sharon launched his daring Gaza disengagement

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