In the spring of 1978, when the euphoria of doves who were exhilarated by Sadat's journey to Jerusalem was giving way to the euphoria of hawks who were exhilarated by Begin's refusal to allow that magnificent event to annul the geographical dreams of Jewish chauvinism, I spent an afternoon in Samaria with Ariel Sharon. Sharon was the minister of agriculture in the Likud government, and the chairman of the ministerial committee for settlement affairs. There were no Samaritans in Samaria, though political violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank was still a few years away. I was in the company of a shrewd and dauntless friend who was covering the territories for Haaretz, which meant hitting the roads in the morning in search of the facts--a concrete foundation poured, a barbed-wire fence erected, a telephone pole raised--that had been created by Sharon under cover of night. These things were often done furtively, because the golden age of Israeli settlement was also the golden age of Israeli diplomacy. Sharon had presented his extravagant plans for the Judaization of the territories only six weeks or so before Sadat appeared in Israel, the Camp David accords were signed a month after the first Jewish families arrived in Ariel, and so on. I wanted to know why, in Sharon's opinion, such a policy—the simultaneous pursuit of peaceful Israel and Greater Israel—was not perilously divided against itself. My friend and I met him at a settlement called Karnei Shomron, another new fact. He wore a black Members Only jacket and seemed to know the name of every settler he saw. He was indifferent to their metaphysical vapor, but not to its uses. And of course he turned up with his big rolled maps, which he carried in his hand like a blunderbuss. We paused at an outcropping at the side of a road to ponder the maps, which were supposed to be all that we needed to know.
SPREADING THEM OUT ON A ROCK, Sharon showed us where the strategic crossroads in the West Bank were, and how they could be controlled by a combination of infrastructure and colonization, thereby precluding any Palestinian territory sufficiently contiguous to be called a state. I thought he was mad. What about the vast Palestinian population that already inhabited these regions? About this, he had nothing of note to say. Perhaps he already held the view, which became clear four years later when he launched the Lebanon war, that Jordan was the real Palestine. He mumbled a few silly words about the Jews of the world eventually coming home to Zion, and mentioned the importance of strategic depth to Israel's security, and waited for us to admire his vision. I was struck mainly by the power of his single-mindedness. He seemed full of ideas but without thought. Even more than he believed in force, he believed in movement. Sharon was a unilateralist of the right who became a unilateralist of the left. Unilateralism, for him, was not a doctrine, it was a temperament. The wall against the Palestinians, the withdrawal from Gaza, the invention of Kadima: these, too, were expressions of his addiction to action. Finally Sharon's diabolical energy found an undiabolical purpose--and then he was robbed of it completely. Now he lies still, as his doctors try to stimulate the bulldozer with Mozart. For such a man, stillness is a true malediction.
IT IS EASY TO REVILE SHARON. So much of his bravery was attended by cruelty. And yet, in his stirring apostasy of the last few years, Sharon gave proof in himself of the quality of self-overcoming, which is the most uncommon quality of all. There is something darkly comic about the shared difficulties of the right and the left in praising him. Nobody any longer wants him all, which is as it should be: he does not add up. So it is worth remarking that all of the peacemakers of Israel—Begin, Rabin (whose military and political history with the Palestinians was not exactly tender), Sharon—have all been heroes of self- overcoming. This is not because only they had the "credibility" to make peace: it is a dubious credibility that is owed to a record of violence. The reason is deeper. It is that the only sort of dovishness that makes sense in Israel is a hawkish dovishness. For we have not yet seen the day when the argument for territorial compromise and the creation of a Palestinian state may be made by Israelis on the grounds that the Palestinians are keen for order and peace. Quite the contrary. There is anarchy in Palestine, and Hamas is ascendant. As Steven Erlanger chillingly observed in The New York Times last Sunday, the Palestinian Authority "may look like a failed state even before it becomes one. " And in Iran, a primitive anti-Semite is ordering the internationally monitored seals on his nuclear facilities broken. The only peace that is available to Israel is a premature peace, and the Israeli center, the mixture of prudence and decency that Sharon (Arik melekh yisrael!) represented, is wagering that a premature peace may not be a counterfeit peace.
THERE ARE GOOD REASONS FOR SUCH A wager. Israel is spectacularly strong; and the peace with Egypt and Jordan has withstood two intifadas and an American war in Iraq; and the Soviet Union is still dead; and the requirements of Israeli safety have nothing to do with the requirements of Jewish eschatology; and Benjamin Netanyahu's nasty politics of fear does not deserve to find shelter behind the monumental failures of the Palestinians. (Netanyahu is now busy ridding his party of its radicals and portraying himself as Sharon's good son.) But the best reason for the wager, of course, is that the demographic inevitabilities between the river and the sea are now incontrovertible. No, that's not right: they were incontrovertible decades ago. But at last they have been acknowledged by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and other figures on the right who have more important things to be than right. I overcame my skepticism about Sharon's change of heart on April 14, 2004, when he came to Washington to tell President Bush that Israel will insist upon retaining five settlement blocs on the West Bank. Five! The press exploded that an American president had for the first time acceded to Israeli settlements. They missed the scoop, which was that the foreign policy of Israel had been emancipated from the fantasies and the stratagems of the settlers by the man who was once their god. Of all the people to establish a political basis for a practicable peace! But that is precisely what this grand and brutish man has done.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the January 23, 2006, issue of the magazine.