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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.)