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Sharon's style missed [Commentary]

West BankNational GovernmentIsraelElectionsReligious Conflicts

Former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon's death is a stark reminder of the absence of strong leadership in Israel today. More than their differences in physical appearance or demeanor, what distinguished Sharon from current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were their contrasting approaches to decision-making: Sharon was bold and decisive; Mr. Netanyahu is weak and irresolute.

A man of endless controversy, Sharon aroused passions among supporters and detractors alike. He was called "The Butcher of Beirut" for his notorious role in the Lebanon War; "The Bulldozer," due to his girth, combative manner, and aggressive construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza; "Arik, King of Israel," by ardent fans; and later, by some of the same people, a "traitor," following his government's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Risk-averse and susceptible to pressure, Mr. Netanyahu rarely has evoked such strong emotions.

With actions that were often reckless, destructive and resulted in unnecessary loss of life, Sharon's legacy is a mixed one. During his premiership, however, Sharon was transformed from right-wing firebrand and provocateur to a mature statesman when he came to realize that maintaining the status quo of Israeli occupation was detrimental not only to the Palestinians but also to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. Mr. Netanyahu's legacy is lackluster, though unfinished. Whether he has reached the same conclusion as Sharon is far from clear.

A lifelong hardliner, Sharon stunned the nation when he declared, in September 2001, that "the state of Israel wants to give the Palestinians what nobody had given them before — the possibility of establishing a state." Throughout his career, Sharon had argued against such a move, insisting that the Palestinians already had a state — Jordan. As Prime Minister, however, Sharon had undergone a change of heart, explaining that "you see things from here that you don't see from there." Shortly after his reelection in January 2003, Sharon's government formally approved President Bush's Road Map for Peace, marking the first time an Israeli government had endorsed Palestinian statehood.

When Mr. Netanyahu finally came out in support of Palestinian statehood in June 2009, he did so out of tactical considerations: to ease tensions with the Obama administration. Although Mr. Netanyahu has not disavowed his support for a two-state solution, he has been less than committed to it — at one point, even suggesting that the conflict is "insoluble." To Mr. Netanyahu, the occupation and settlements are not the core of the conflict, which he sees as Palestinian unwillingness to accept Israel as a Jewish state. Based on his pessimistic assessments of the peace talks, his negative view of his Palestinian negotiating partner, and his continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it is questionable whether he shares Sharon's view that "the alternative of one nation, where one rules over another, would be a horrible disaster for both peoples."

Mr. Netanyahu is in constant fear of alienating his right-wing base, lest he be replaced by one of his more hawkish rivals. Sharon, on the other hand, was not afraid to tell his cabinet ministers that the occupation "is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians."

Nor was Sharon afraid to bolt the party he helped found when his party colleagues refused to play along. After more than three decades in Likud, Sharon established the centrist Kadima party, whose platform called for a two-state solution. By contrast, in both 2009 and 2013, Mr. Netanyahu chose to form right-wing coalitions in which the majority of both cabinet members and government Knesset members opposed a Palestinian state. Indicative of the opposition within Mr. Netanyahu's government toward Palestinian statehood was a letter signed last fall by 17 members of his coalition, including five deputy ministers, urging the prime minister to refuse any deal that would involve ceding land to the Palestinians.

Sharon's passing coincides with Secretary of State John Kerry's intensive efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian deal. It is impossible to know whether Sharon would have been able to reach an agreement with the Palestinians had he not had a massive stroke that left him incapacitated. What is certain is that if Mr. Netanyahu does not adopt Sharon's determination, another opportunity for peace will be lost.

Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University and author of the forthcoming book, Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel, to be published by SUNY Press this year. His e-mail is ziv@american.edu

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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