I find the recent encomia to stricken Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as an utterly irreplaceable visionary leader to be somewhat baffling. Put aside, for a moment, his rather checkered history prior to his election as prime minister of Israel. Even in office, his major initiatives, now touted as revolutionary master strokes (no pun intended), were in fact--with one glaring exception--nothing more than the obvious, necessary actions that any Israeli prime minister would have taken in his place. Indeed, they were rather more timid than they needed to be, or than a more decisive leader with a more pristine record would likely have been able to pull off.
First, there was the re-invasion of the West Bank in 2002. This military action was in fact inevitable from the moment Arafat launched his "Al Aqsa Intifada" in September of 2000. Once he committed himself to violence, Arafat had no strategy available other than escalation until victory or defeat. And escalate he did, working all-out to stoke terrorism against Israel pretty much till the day he died. Yet Sharon, after being elected in February of 2001 on a get-tough-with-terrorists platform, nevertheless barely responded for over a year and a half. He continued to restrain himself even after 9/11, when the support of his main ally, the US, in the battle against terrorism became virtually certain. He only stirred himself to initiate large-scale miilitary operations after an horrific month of suicide bombings in March 2002 effectively forced his hand.
Then there was the security fence. Again, its necessity became glaringly obvious almost from the moment the second intifada began, as terrorists easily infiltrated into Israel from the towns controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Yet Sharon didn't stir himself to act until well after Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. Even then, his commitment to the fence was somewhat perfunctory, and to this day large sections of it have yet to be built.
Finally, there was the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. This really was a bold, unforced move, and it remains defensible as a long-term strategic decision, albeit with major short- and medium-term costs. However, it does not by itself solve any problems. Rather, it can be seen as a clarifying step, placing the ball in the Palestinians' court and making possible a much more unified Israeli stance in the future. In this respect, it parallels another bold gesture by an Israeli prime minister: Ehud Barak's peace proposals at Camp David. Both Sharon and Barak essentially granted the Palestinians explicitly what Israel had long been implicitly willing to concede, and thus successfully exposed and clarified the depth of Palestinian rejectionism in the eyes of the world--and more importantly, of Israelis themselves. Barak's move thus paved the way for the national consensus in favor of resolute action that Sharon finally got around to embracing in 2002. Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza will likely have a similar effect, persuading a solid majority of Israelis to abandon negotiations altogether for the foreseeable future, and to concentrate instead on consolidation of territory and military interdiction of terrorist organizations.
Of course, Barak is now vilified as a clumsy naif for his earlier clarifying act, while Sharon is glorified--for now--as a visionary for his. Perhaps that's because Barak's decision shattered the illusions of the Israeli left, while Sharon's shattered the illusions of the Israeli right. The hard-liners who vilify Sharon today don't dominate Israeli politics and culture the way the doves of 1999 did. Nevertheless, I predict that as the situation in Gaza deteriorates, Sharon's move will increasingly come to be seen, somewhat unfairly, as a blunder--just as Barak's is today.
I also predict that the next Israeli leader, faced with the increasing militarization of the terrorist operations emanating from the twin Augean stables of Gaza and the West Bank, will be compelled to launch large-scale military operations into both of them from time to time. He will then be celebrated as a bold, decisive leader, merely for doing what Levi Eshkol was forced to do in 1967, what Golda Meir was forced to do (with Sharon's help) in 1973, what Menachem Begin would eventually have been forced to do at some point anyway after 1982--and what Ariel Sharon was forced to do in 2002: sending Israeli troops once again into enemy territory, in pursuit of Israel's relentlessly bloody would-be destroyers.