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 plan.

It took him almost a year to convince the Israeli public and foreign leaders, wary of his previous evasions from many a commitment, of his sincerity and determination to leave Gaza. And, it is true, the plan has yet to be implemented. But the long disengagement timetable has won him unprecedented global admiration, culminating in Bush's April 14, 2004, letter recognizing the "facts on the ground"--Israel's main West Bank settlements--as a key factor in determining future borders and declaring that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, rather than to Israel. Sharon regarded the Bush letter as his top diplomatic achievement, a thank you note for his adding four West Bank settlements to his Gaza package. He also used the worldwide anticipation for the unprecedented settlement removal to crush the Palestinian intifada and assassinate the leaders of Hamas, the main Islamic terrorist group.

Sharon has outlived his lifelong nemesis Yasser Arafat, but he shows little generosity toward the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), despite portraying him as moderate. Beyond making some token gestures, Sharon has shown no willingness to negotiate and compromise with Arabs, treating them with a mixture of scorn and deep suspicion. "The Arab-Israeli conflict will be resolved only when the Arabs recognize the Jewish birthright for a Jewish state in the cradle of the Jewish people," he says, indicating a prolonged, very slow, and all but impossible process. Unilateral steps--be they invasion or withdrawal, construction or destruction--suit Sharon much more than diplomatic quid pro quos.

More than anything, however, Sharon has shown an unmatched talent for political survival. His vast experience in almost sixty years of public service as a professional soldier and politician, his dispassionate self-control under pressure, and his accurate assessment of other peoples' weaknesses have kept him afloat in the stormy waters of domestic turmoil. The West Bank reoccupation in 2002 regained Israel the initiative in the war and solidified Sharon's domestic support, leading him to a landslide reelection in early 2003. A year later, he adopted the platform of his Labor challenger Amram Mitzna, who proposed a unilateral Gaza withdrawal and lost the election. Throughout 2004, Sharon sacrificed a stable parliamentary coalition and risked an open rift with his Likud party in order to win the crucial disengagement votes within his cabinet and at the Knesset. He lost several battles along the way, with his plan almost derailed by a party referendum, but he recovered. The Israeli public rewarded him with high job approval ratings, higher than any possible contender's, throughout the process. The corruption charges were also dropped along the way.

Now Sharon readies himself for the last battles of his career, running for a third term in 2006 and struggling to keep "strategically important" parts of the West Bank under Israeli control. At this point, the domestic challenge appears as the easier one, given Sharon's popularity, but much depends on the outcome of his disengagement plan: Will the evacuation turn violent, and if so, to what extent? Will the extremist elements of the settler movement rebel against the government and religious soldiers refuse evacuation orders? Sharon is trying to defuse the tense atmosphere by hugging the settlers, but they appear reluctant to respond in kind.

The Israeli leader will face external pressure, meanwhile, to follow the Gaza withdrawal with a similar move in the West Bank. How far he will try to pull back there remains the key question for Arab-Israeli relations in the years to come. Publicly at least, Sharon is sticking to his old "security zones" map, aiming to surround a future Palestinian state with a wide Israeli-held ring. Recently, however, while drawing and redrawing the West Bank barrier route in response to international pressure and Israeli supreme court rulings, Sharon acknowledged imperatives of demography that he had previously denied. He now recognizes Israel's need to exclude as many Palestinians as possible from its territory in order to preserve the state's Jewish majority and identity.

In practice, he is likely to concentrate on trying to retain the major "settlement blocks" (mainly around Jerusalem) and the mostly uninhabited Jordan Rift Valley (which he sees as essential for security). So the government is building new housing in the blocks to strengthen the "facts on the ground" before the lines are drawn. Sharon is apparently also ready to discuss "populated land swaps" between the settlements and Arab towns in Israel, provided they are carried out "by agreement rather than force."

Nevertheless, these are mere opening statements. Given the Israeli electoral timetable--elections are scheduled for late October 2006 but may be held earlier--the real territorial debate is more than a year away. Its outcome will be decided by the relative strengths and weaknesses of Israelis and Palestinians at that time and, more than anything else, by Bush's determination to keep his pledge and establish a contiguous Palestinian state before leaving office.

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  • Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz. He has covered Israel's leadership and foreign relations since 1993.
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