The post-Ariel Sharon Middle East really began eight years ago, when he was incapacitated by a stroke. Within less than seven months, Israel’s enemies struck: Hamas in a daring attack from the Gaza Strip that resulted in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Sharon, and Hizbullah with a similar kidnapping across Israel’s northern border. Those raids led to war: Operation Summer Rains (Gaza) and the ill-starred Second Lebanon War.
Hamas and Hizbullah might not have struck had Sharon still been in office. Sharon was hated in the Arab world, but he was also feared. His successor, Ehud Olmert, was seen as a weak bureaucrat, and Israel’s poor response in the summer of 2006 seemed to confirm that impression. However, Olmert later proved otherwise, launching Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, while Hamas leaders cowered underneath a hospital.
Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza continues to be debated. He gave up Israel’s settlements, farms and military positions in the coastal strip, sending Israeli soldiers to pull out the last remaining residents. Instead of using the withdrawal as an opportunity for peace, Palestinian leaders turned the abandoned greenhouses into ruins and accelerated their campaign of terror, launching thousands of rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians.
Yet the disengagement, together with Israel’s security barrier in and along the West Bank, effectively ended the second intifada and renewed a sense of Israeli sovereignty. Though unilateral withdrawal did not bring peace, it was, at least, an option for ending the conflict. Thereafter, Israel would feel less pressure to make concessions–certainly after Hamas controlled Gaza (after a 2007 coup) and Hizbullah–and beyond it, Iran–threatened.
Sharon was publicly neutral, if quietly supportive, of President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. He would have praised the “surge” in Iraq, and would have been openly critical of President Barack Obama’s decision to pull out all U.S. troops. He would also have disapproved of Obama’s (belated) support for the Arab Spring, and his support for the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Sharon preferred a strong U.S. presence in the region.
Yet Sharon also would not have depended on U.S. support. He was certainly old enough to remember a time before Israel was so central to U.S. foreign policy, when the country’s main source of weapons was France and its leaders did not worry much about the mood at Foggy Bottom. Sharon did not hesitate to criticize President Bush when he felt the latter was appeasing the Palestinians, and would have done more–and worse–to Obama.
Both of Sharon’s successors, Olmert and now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are reported to have asked for the U.S. to give the “green light” to a pre-emptive strike on Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Both relented when they were denied–though Olmert, denied such permission to strike a nuclear facility in Syria, launched the attack anyway. It is hard to believe Sharon would have shown the same restraint on Iran.
It is said that geopolitics in the Middle East follows the lead of the “strong horse.” Sharon was among the last of the strong horses. Obama is seen as an inept lightweight, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not feared, and the Arab leaders who remain are weak or old. That has created a vacuum the Iranian regime is rushing to fill. The best that can be said is that Israel is, despite two wars, largely as Sharon left it. How long remains to be seen.