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Why Ariel Sharon is the real man of the year

For creating a new Israeli, regional and international consensus in favour of his plan to leave the Gaza Strip, for being the first Israeli leader to openly announce the dismantling of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and for isolating the zealous ideological minority among the settlers, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is my choice for the 2004 person of the year. Once his new "disengagement government" is sworn in early next week, Israeli politics and society will never be the same.

For better or worse, it isn't the first time that Mr. Sharon has reshaped Israel's political reality. Throughout a checkered career, he's been guided by the lesson learned during decades as a brilliant -- if reckless -- military tactician: never be on the defensive.

By late 2003, after three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Mr. Sharon was losing ground domestically and internationally. Public morale in Israel was low, political rivals were plotting his demise, and criticism of Israeli's military actions and its security fence was growing. New initiatives such as the U.S. road map to peace and the Israeli-Palestinian Geneva accord emerged to fill the vacuum of a deadlocked conflict.

Determined to regain a tactical advantage, Mr. Sharon's decision to unilaterally dismantle 21 settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank and to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza dramatically changed the status quo. Even his harshest critics on the left had to admit that, although acting unilaterally might be folly, dismantling settlements was anything but. One year later, a new discourse prevails everywhere. Mr. Sharon is poised to carry out his plan and Palestinians are preparing to take over in Gaza; key regional actors such as Egypt and Jordan are actively engaged, and the international community agrees that Mr. Sharon's is the only game in town.

Israel's political deck has been forever reshuffled. The former architect of the settlement drive shattered the assumption that the right would refuse to withdraw from the occupied territories and turned on its head the conventional wisdom that Israel couldn't leave settlements and territory while under fire. With uncanny intuition, Mr. Sharon has marginalized the settlers and placed himself at the heart of the new Israeli consensus -- the uneasy recognition that territorial concessions are necessary even if the Israelis don't trust their Palestinian partner. No wonder the settlers are reacting with unprecedented threats of violent resistance.

Throughout, Mr. Sharon literally played out Henry Kissinger's rueful dictum that Israel's foreign policy is its domestic policy. He's now done what no other Israeli prime minister could: While still in office and without going to new elections, he banked on popular support, stared down opponents within his party, deconstructed a right-wing coalition poised to defeat him and, with the help of the Labour party, built an alternative parliamentary majority for his plan.

As a result, a "new" Likud that is committed to territorial compromise reigns as Israel's dominant party. True, Labour's support is critical for implementing disengagement, but Israel's former first party is relegated to junior status in the Sharon-led cabinet. In the next election (to be held by 2006), Labour will be hard-pressed to offer a coherent alternative.

Those familiar with Mr. Sharon's track record aren't necessarily surprised. He's never been loyal to ideologies or people. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he has little in common with the religious right-wing settlers who became his foot soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza and now feel betrayed. His commitment isn't to God's promised land but to physically settling the land and the security he believes this provides. Political analyst Yoram Peri notes wryly that Mr. Sharon is actually "an old mapainik," a reference to the crusty, hawkish old-timers in Israel's founding party (and Labour's predecessor), Mapai. His grudging pragmatism flows from the belief that Israel should hold on to maximum territory -- but without provoking American and international sanctions. And like fellow Mapai followers, he barely masks a patronizing attitude toward Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

To be sure, Mr. Sharon conceded just enough to preserve both a domestic consensus and international support while holding firm on his refusal to discuss further West Bank withdrawals and to agree to freeze settlement activity. (Ultimately, a political horizon that begins and ends with leaving Gaza provides nothing more than a temporary respite. Despite Palestinian presidential front-runner Mahmoud Abbas's objection to violence, the two sides remain far apart.)

In naming George Bush its 2004 person of the year, Time magazine noted that "a particular chemistry of skills and instincts and circumstances gave Bush his victory." The same is true of Ariel Sharon. Four years of violence made him the right leader at the right time. But if 2004 demonstrated his tenacity and political shrewdness, 2005 will further test his mettle. The burden of proof still rests heavily on his shoulders, and Israel's future hangs in the balance.

Still, in the final analysis, Mr. Sharon's legacy may be in doing what only he could -- forcing Israelis to have the conversation they've avoided for too long. For that signal achievement, he gets my vote.

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