Sharon was at the height of his popularity and power as prime minister, but above all, he was at the height of his maturity as a leader. It was a stage in his action-packed life when he was not shooting bluff and bluster from the hip. It was a stage when he donned his reading glasses and delivered his rare speeches from a written text, carefully choosing and weighing the words jotted down in his little book.
Gone was the unbridled warrior heading into battle. Gone was the political punk who snatched microphones at political assemblies. Most of all, gone was the fearless settler and right-wing mascot of the Greater Israel movement.
The disengagement was carried out under the slogan "with sensitivity and determination," but from my breakfasts with Sharon, with or without halvah, I can tell you it was really carried out "with determination and determination." The sensitivity stuff was bull.
The settlers knew the truth and were careful not to stretch the rope too far. They knew Sharon would uproot them from their homes and settlements with whatever force was necessary. Because that's what a leader does.
Unfortunately, no Sharon clone has emerged yet, built from the same stuff.
Does this mean that if Sharon hadn't slipped into a coma, he would have continued with unilateral disengagement? The answer is no. He explicitly said that after the Gaza withdrawal, the next stage would only be by agreement, i.e., the product of negotiations. Sharon said what he meant, and his guideline was the Bush plan. According to this plan, negotiations must be preceded by a cessation of terror. Sharon didn't "sell off the Land of Israel," as his opponents claimed. What he did was roll the ball into the Palestinian court and set a precedent in this neck of the woods.
Sharon the leader and statesman was more calculating and cautious than Sharon the soldier and politician. He spoke little and very rarely put his foot in his mouth. He wouldn't have come out with a slip of the tongue about Israel's nuclear capacity like Olmert, which brought the whole world down on us. He wouldn't talk about our kidnapped soldiers as if they were dead, sabotaging our justification for the Lebanon War.
Sharon had natural instincts that kept him from doing stupid things. If he were around, Amir Peretz wouldn't have been appointed defense minister in a million years. He would never have entrusted Avigdor Lieberman with one of the most sensitive defense jobs for coalitionary reasons. For that sort of thing, he would have made do with Agudat Yisrael.
If Ariel Sharon were with us today, standing at the helm, maybe there wouldn't have been a second Lebanon war. It certainly would not have been timed the way it was, or carried out so sloppily. Sharon would have pored over every detail of the military maneuvers. He might have chosen to stick with aerial combat, or postponed retaliatory action until Israel was fully prepared to go in and settle accounts once and for all, by finishing off Nasrallah.
A senior officer who worked at Sharon's headquarters for many years says he had a land campaign at his fingertips. An egg-on-the-face operation like this one would never have seen the light of day if he were around. If Sharon were to wake up for a minute and see what is left of our power of deterrence, he would ask to be put back to sleep.
Sharon spent a lot of time thinking and planning, and less time talking. His heir, Ehud Olmert, talks more than he thinks. That's the difference between a statesman and a politician. There is no way in the world that Sharon would tell Assad he is not a partner for peace because President Bush objects. That kind of statement is an embarrassment to both sides. Bush and Sharon would sit together and come up with a plan to call Assad's bluff. Because they were real friends, whereas Olmert and Bush are only photo-op and back-slapping buddies.
If we ever find ourselves pondering what leads to what - is it history that creates the leader, or the leader who creates history? - the Sharon phenomenon provides an answer.
The metamorphosis of Sharon's personality and thinking is what changed history. No other Israeli leader would have dared to evacuate the Gaza settlements and settlers. He was the man who roused this country from its dreams and delusions, and paved the way for a Palestinian state. Now the rest depends on them.