Opinion: Ariel Sharon's Endgame

Mike Tobin
As a journalist, I know I am supposed to stay dispassionate about the events of the world and newsmakers around me. But sitting here next to the Hadassah, Ein Karem Hospital in the winter drizzle typing with numb fingers, I wish this wasn’t happening. I wish I could report a miraculous turnaround in the prime minister’s condition. I don’t want the Sharon era to end. Not for just his leadership in Israel, certainly not for what he did to the Palestinians, but what he did for the Palestinians and what it appeared he was about to do. Besides, Sharon made rough and tumble politics into fantastic spectator sportsmanship.

In the time that I have covered the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, there has been one person who has effected change in the Palestinian territories. It wasn’t Yasser Arafat. He was quite content with a status quo of moderate chaos. Mahmoud Abbas has proven that whatever his strengths might be, leadership isn’t one of them. Under Abbas’ watch there have been no significant steps toward nation building. Life has degraded into one giant leaderless "mushkila" (Arabic for problem).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to make the mistake of canonizing Sharon simply because he’s at death’s door. I doubt there is anyone on the planet who has killed more Arabs than him. In his trademark style he was unemotional about the whole thing. He just plowed through Arabs, or anyone who stood between him and his goal. But the same Arab leaders who deride Sharon as the butcher of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut, are the same Arab leaders who have kept Palestinians corralled in refugee camps for three generations, and have never given them much more than dialogue to help their situation.

Ariel Sharon gave the Palestinian people a contiguous piece of real estate when he pulled out of the Gaza strip. For the first time since the creation of Israel, something Palestinian kids could draw on a map started to take shape. As the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wrote to the Ha’aretz newspaper, “Only a statesman of his stature could have dared take this step.” The pullout was politically inexpedient. It sparked a rebellion on the right and ultimately cost Sharon his position in the very Likud party he founded.

Unlike most politicians in this part of the world, Sharon was not one for threats or bravado-laden public statements. Only Yasser Arafat had the ability to taunt public emotion out of the big guy. Therefore, it caught your attention when Sharon said he should have killed Arafat back in Beirut when he had the chance. Or when asked by the press if he would allow Arafat to leave his forced confinement in Ramallah, Sharon responded in English, “it will be a one-way ticket.” Sharon generally spoke softly and used the big stick.

From the sidelines, I must say the hardball politics that led up to the withdrawal were the best I’ve ever seen. There was a point when a majority of Sharon’s cabinet ministers plotted to vote against the withdrawal. Under any other leadership the plan would have been doomed. Sharon just calmly began firing the dissenting cabinet ministers — nothing personal, but off with your head — it was simply a matter of numbers. He removed dissenting votes until the withdrawal had a majority. As I joked with colleagues at the time, Sharon rolled heads until he liked the headcount. The political theatre that developed was great entertainment. Cabinet ministers took off running to avoid getting their pink slips. Sharon aids were scouring the Holy Land to inform the ministers, "You’re Fired!" One minister even hid in the very Gaza settlements which were to be evacuated. Ultimately, the ministers who had dug in their heels opposing the pullout were either fired or they found flexibility in their position before the vote was taken and their pink slips delivered. Sharon had a goal, and “the bulldozer” was unstoppable.

The West Bank is still dotted with enough settlements that it looks like Swiss cheese, but we started to get the idea that Sharon had ambitions to make it look like something Palestinians could call home.

Ehud Olmert played the role of Sharon’s scout. Before big ideas became big political battles, Olmert would fling them out before the public like clay pigeons to see if they got shot down. Long before there were battles in the Knesset over the Gaza withdrawal, Olmert made a couple of public statements suggesting it. Ultimately, we saw the settlers dragged singing, crying and screaming their way out of the Gaza Strip.

Just a few months after the Gaza evacuation was complete, Ehud Olmert offered up the idea of pulling out of the West Bank. Sharon denied he had any ambitions for a West Bank withdrawal, but he had to. The Gaza withdrawal had weakened him politically. He needed to get his legs back underneath him before inflaming the rebellion once more. He left Likud, formed Kadima and the polls showed his political foundation was re-solidifying even stronger than before. Sometime after the March 28th Israeli elections, we would have seen where he was heading.

Don’t take from this the impression that, somewhere beneath his thick skin, Ariel Sharon developed a soft spot for the Palestinians. I believe he saw an endgame. I believe he wanted to be the guy who fought with the Jewish militia before Israel had an army and saw the conflict through to a resolution. He was going to carve up the West Bank in Israel’s best interest with the big settlements in tact. Palestinians would get what was left over, but all my Palestinian friends were aware that they would get a plot of land for a state, although they would not get to choose what it looked like. It would have been a weird, gerrymandered, two-part state that would require a skilled jeweler to sculpture its map into a lapel pin. But it would have been a major step toward resolution of the conflict and improving the lives of Palestinians. Removing the suffering Palestinians removes the cornerstone-recruiting tool of the global jihadists like Usama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I believe Ariel Sharon was on a track to change not only Israel but also the world and I wanted to cover it.

Mike Tobin is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Jerusalem.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.