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Ariel Sharon's Life of Vigorous Inertia

01/11/2014 05:01 EST | Updated 03/13/2014 05:59 EDT

A settlement, John Kerry said this week, is better than settlements. Yet for years now, a practical sublation of this withdrawal versus occupation dialectic has been in place, involving the concurrence of ongoing peace talks and settler expansion into the West Bank.

As I write this, news arrives both of the progress of the negotiations and the announcement of another 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Whatever the terms on paper, on the ground it is not one or the other: the peace settlement "process" now serves rather than contradicts the settlements.

The inception of Ariel Sharon's career, which by several years predated modern Israel, came when the future Major-General undertook the defence of Israeli settlements by joining the Hagana, at age 14. What then followed was (to put it blandly) a controversial military and political career whose trajectory was sketched this week by Shmuley Boteach, in a January 6 Jerusalem Post article, "No Holds Barred: Sharon's failure to continue the struggle":

For most of his political career, he was an unwavering supporter of Israeli settlements and oversaw the biggest wave of Jewish development in the West Bank and Gaza since Israel took control of the territories in 1967. But then, in his last major decision as prime minister, his staunch encouragement of Israeli settlement policy took an unpredictable turn.

There, again, a settlement versus settlements. Boteach is of course referring to Prime Minister Sharon's second-term "turn" in which he began to speak of Gush Emunim as an occupation and endorsed the two-state solution. The man who had himself boasted of establishing Kfar Darom, Gaza's first settlement, now led the expulsions and bulldozings. Internationally Sharon came to be regarded as a Nixon or F. W. de Klerk figure, the true believer and partisan warrior who yields to the cold calculations of political pragmatism.

It is difficult to overstate Sharon's shaping of the state of Israel. He fought in every war of the quarter-century from 1948 onwards, and played leading roles in both the military and political spheres for over a half-century. Whether as a criminal or hero (and each assessment is amply represented), his every move reorganized the chessboard. Sharon's political ambitions and calculations contributed to the rise of Likud, and when his tactics had changed, another grand reorganization occurred culminating in Kadima and the eventual return of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister.

In the 30 years between, roughly from 1975 to 2005, the PLO had gone from being a terrorist organization to a partner in the peace process. Sharon for many of these years -- including his time in the wilderness as a Minister Without Portfolio, as a direct result of the Sabra and Chatilla massacres and the subsequent determinations of the Kahan report -- belonged to the rejectionist camp of Israeli politics.

As a guerilla fighter, he introduced the small and lightly-armed surgical strike unit, an innovation which confounded his enemies and which drew the admiring attention of the American military. As a warrior, Sharon was tactical to the marrow. Anything Israel did not take, he concluded, would fall to the Palestinians and would be used to advantage. By this military calculation, Sharon had been driven to the necessity of Eretz Israel Ha'shlema -- a Jewish state comprising Gaza and the West Bank.

The man who had introduced lighter, swifter and tactical war was not likely however to miss the potential of a lighter, swifter and tactical peace. As a military asset, he concluded, the immiserated and ungovernable Gaza was not worth its enormous costs of maintenance.

The West Bank, meanwhile, could be secured and dominated by means of the separation barrier and the salient rather than by wholesale occupation, from which it perhaps followed that both settlements and a two-state settlement were concurrently possible. Indeed, this is the character of the proposal now being negotiated, with Israel seeking to retain its strategic holdings of Beit Aryeh, Beit El and Hebron, among others.

Kerry's attempted resolution of the political struggle between "the settlements" versus "a settlement" factions may well fail. He is, as Sharon was, a pragmatist operating in an environment where the dictates of religious absolutism must never be discounted. Sharon's eventual coming around to the widely endorsed two-state solution earned him the contempt of many on the right, some of whom supposedly issued a "lashes of fire" death curse.

Whether or not the work of the Angel of Death, a stroke followed by an induced coma soon overtook Sharon and precluded a likely third term in office. As in life, Sharon became in his comatose state a symbol and an occasion of controversy.

Israeli artist Noam Braslavsky's sculpture of the former and wasting soldier-statesman was, according to its Tel Aviv curators, a metaphor for "the inertia of Israeli politics." Many others prefer to recall, whether to praise or condemn, the active Sharon of restless struggle. Again, however one detects the false dichotomy, endless inertia and ceaseless struggle being entirely compatible.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly indicated that Israel was building 1,400 new Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. In fact, Israel is building 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. This reference has been corrected.

Ariel Sharon