Ariel Sharon proved you could stand up to terrorism

    Four years ago
    this month, I visited Israel for the first time and had a meeting with
    Ariel Sharon. To say his public image was unfavorable would be a gross
    understatement. By contrast, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, the
    godfather of international terrorism, had been awarded a Nobel Peace
    Prize.

    Ironically, it was Arafat who had been responsible for Sharon’s rise to
    power. At Camp David in 2000, President Bill Clinton had pressured
    then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to offer Arafat concessions so
    generous many observers believed they would be impossible to turn down.

    But Arafat just said no to Barak and Clinton, brushing aside
    the chance for a Palestinian state _ something never on offer during
    the years the West Bank and Gaza were ruled by Jordan and Egypt
    respectively, or during the centuries those territories were ruled by
    the Ottoman Turks.

    Instead, Arafat launched the “Intifada,” a
    terrorist war intended to wipe Israel off the map once and for all.
    With Israelis facing almost weekly suicide bombings in the streets of
    their cities, Sharon overwhelmingly defeated Barak in a 2001 election.
    It was an astonishing comeback for the aging warhorse.

    In
    person, Sharon did not seem like such a tough guy. He struck me as
    modest and avuncular. But he was adamant that Arafat would never make
    peace. More than that, Arafat was directly responsible for the renewed
    bloodshed. The notion that Arafat regretted the slaughter of women and
    children but was powerless to stop such attacks was pure fiction,
    Sharon insisted.

    And, he added, he had proof: On Jan. 3, 2002,
    just a few days before our meeting, units of the Israeli Defense Forces
    had seized the Karine A, a Palestinian Authority-owned freighter. As
    the IDF had suspected, the ship was loaded with weapons supplied by
    Iran, including long-range Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles,
    mortars, mines, sniper rifles, ammunition and more than two tons of
    high explosives.

    Had this cargo been delivered, it would have
    been used to murder hundreds, maybe thousands, of Israelis. The attempt
    to smuggle these weapons into Gaza could not have happened without
    Arafat’s approval and support _ and it was a blatant violation of his
    promises. Under the Oslo Accords of 1993, Arafat had renounced
    terrorism. In exchange, Israeli authorities had brought him back from
    exile in Tunisia and installed him in power on the West Bank and Gaza
    where, by the time of the Barak/Clinton peace offer of 2000, Arafat’s
    Palestinian Authority had jurisdiction over the vast majority of
    Palestinians.

    Sharon’s response was not long in coming. In the
    spring, he launched Operation Defensive Shield, sending tanks and
    troops to re-occupy Palestinian communities that Arafat had turned into
    terrorist bases.

    At first, even President Bush objected.
    Within days, however, the president was persuaded by his strongest
    supporters _ including foreign policy hawks, evangelical Christians and
    neo-conservatives _ that Sharon was not wrong to take the war to the
    terrorists.

    From then on, Sharon ignored those on the left in
    Israel, the United States and Europe who urged him to resume
    negotiations with Arafat. More surprisingly, Sharon would break with
    his allies on the Israeli and American right who opposed making any
    concessions until and unless Palestinian leaders gave something
    tangible in return, something beyond promises meant to be broken.

    Sharon embarked on a process of “disengagement,” of pursuing peace
    without a partner. He began to build a security barrier to prevent
    terrorist infiltrations. If, over time, it becomes a de facto border it
    will still leave 93 percent of the West Bank in Palestinian hands:
    slightly less than the Palestinians were offered at Camp David but more
    than Israeli hard-liners would cede.

    And despite vehement
    opposition from within his Likud Party, Sharon last year withdrew every
    soldier and settler from Gaza _ neither demanding nor expecting
    anything from Palestinians in return.

    When I first visited
    Israel and met Sharon, Israel was suffering a brutal terrorist assault,
    one that it was not clear Israel could survive. Today, Israel is hardly
    out of danger _ Gaza is, sadly, more than ever a terrorist safe haven
    and the threats from Iran’s Militant Islamist regime, Hezbollah and
    even al Qaeda grow more ominous every day. But the Intifada has been
    defeated and Palestinian terrorist attacks are down to a fraction of
    what they were when Sharon came to power. Terrorism remains a powerful
    weapon. But we now know what we didn’t know four years ago: Terrorism
    can be beaten.

    Sharon remains a controversial figure. His
    leadership and legacy long will be topics of debate. But that he has
    been a bold and decisive leader, and that he leaves a legacy _ these
    propositions are beyond dispute.

    (Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)