Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Ariel Sharon Could Have Saved Israel

Secretary of State John Kerry is on a peace offensive, or at least he is acting as though he is on one. He has just embarked on his 10th visit to the Middle East, but the frequency of his visits doesn't appear to be producing anything other than frequent flyer miles. The most he seems to have been able to accomplish is to persuade the Israelis to delay the bids for new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until he departs on Sunday. If this constitutes progress, then it is hard to see where it is progressing other than towards a prolonged exercise in futility between the Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry is in danger of becoming the Dan Snyder of the State Department, promising a revival, only to watch continual meltdowns.

So what else is new? What's new is that former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who is 85 and has been in a coma for eight years, is apparently about to die. His demise provides the melancholy backdrop to Israel's current predicament. Sharon, whom I met once at Blair House, where he came across as genial and earthy, humorous and shrewd, was a great man. Not greatness in the sense that he had an impeccable record. Far from it. But he was a realist--tough, forceful, a visionary who could chuckle to himself about the peculiarities and fascinating qualities of the land he represented.

A wise man, you could even say, whose wisdom Israel desperately misses. It was the older generation of leaders such as Sharon and Yithzak Rabin, both military men, who understood that Israel had to alter its course to ensure its survival. Which is why Sharon, who had once been a proponent of new settlements, didn't hesitate to withdraw Israel from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Sharon repudiated the idea that Israel's greatness could rest in a Greater Israel. Loyalty to the idea of a Jewish state meant that it was imperative to betray the settlers he had once championed. If anyone could have delivered the further territorial concessions that are necessary for an accommodation with the Palestinians, it was Sharon. He knew that the West Bank had become an albatross for Israel, not its salvation. A new exit loomed. But his collapse in January 2006 was an unmitigated disaster for Israel, opening the path for Benjamin Netanyahu's comeback.

Since then Israel has become increasingly isolated. It is harder to make the case for Israel, or, to put it another way, for its defenders to mount a persuasive defense. A small but telling instance is the spate of letters in Thursday's New York Times about the the Hillel organization's attempt to ban exchanges between its Jewish members on college campuses and those it deems anti-Zionist. Eric Fingerhut, president and Chief Executive of Hillel, writes that "we will not, consistent with our guidelines, welcome anti-Zionist speakers or partner with anti-Zionist organziations." This does not sound unreasonable on the face of it. But a number of Jewish students at Swarthmore College who have repudiated these sentiments clearly believe that it is not and that it is, in fact, a smokescreen for censorship of views of the Arab-Israeli conflict that do not comport with those of the leadership of Hillel. It would have been wiser for Hillel to assess these matters on a case-by-case basis rather than trying to issue an ukase that raises more questions than it answers. It goes without saying that a college campus in particular is a place for debate, not the stifling of views. In wading into these treacherous waters, Hillel is doing neither Israel nor itself any favors.

Indeed, the situation on American campuses may not be as dire as Hillel's actions suggest. As Inside Higher Ed reports, a "backlash" is developing against the American Studies Association repugnant resolution calling for a boycott of Israel. Brandeis Unviersity, Kenyon College, Indiana Unviersity and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg have stated that they will exit the association. And a number of university presidents are condemning the attempt to politicize academic freedom. Not usually noted for their courageousness, they know that this is an easy one. Let's hope that the real boycott that ensues is of the American Studies Association.

But ultimately, these developments are a sideshow when contrasted with the standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians. New Israeli settlements will simply confirm that Kerry's efforts were doomed before they even began. It looks increasingly as though Sharon, and Sharon alone, would have been able to extricate Israel from its current political and strategic morass. It would be a bitter irony if the last chance for peace disappeared with the leader known in Israel as "the bulldozer."

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons.