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Sharon's pragmatic outlook could outlive his direct influence

JERUSALEM—When Ariel Sharon was rushed to the hospital Wednesday after a debilitating stroke, activist Dror Etkes, who opposed Jewish settlements in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, found himself praying for the Israeli prime minister he'd long criticized as an uncompromising leader.

On the Mediterranean coast, settlement supporter and Tel Aviv artist Orit Arfa, who once saw Sharon as a strong-willed general who'd never put the country at risk, couldn't help but wish for the death of a man she now considers a corrupt dictator.

The shift in the two Israelis' views reflects not only how far Sharon came during his 77 years but also where Israel may be heading as it prepares for a new era without any of its legendary warrior-statesmen at the helm.

Although Sharon's departure from the political stage is expected to create a diplomatic void in the Middle East, analysts across the political spectrum said the prime minister had shifted the political paradigm in Israel by ending its military rule in the occupied Gaza Strip and using the move to create a new centrist party with a pragmatic outlook.

"The basic political constellation in Israel has been changed because of Ariel Sharon," said Gershom Gorenberg, the author of "The Accidental Empire," a forthcoming book on Israel's settlement movement.

For years, many Israelis had pegged Sharon as a right-wing ideologue, a pillar of the settler movement who encouraged Jews to set up homes in occupied Palestinian land. While Sharon once viewed the settlements as integral to Israel, he was willing to abandon some of them when the political dynamics changed, and most Israelis were ready to follow him.

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, called Sharon a consummate pragmatist who saw the Gaza pullout as part of an evolving philosophy designed to improve Israel's security.

"Without any doubt that is the Alpha and Omega of everything he tried to do," he said. "Whether it be building settlements or abandoning settlements it was security, security, security."

Sharon earned fame initially as a celebrated military commander who was seriously wounded during Israel's 1948 War of Independence, fell in disgrace as defense minister during the 1982 war in Lebanon when he was blamed for a civilian massacre, then rose to a popular prime minister who was willing to pull thousands of Israelis forcibly from land they considered their biblical right. His journey in many ways mirrored the transformation of his country.

For most of his career, Sharon was an unapologetic champion of Israel's settlement strategy, which encouraged hundreds of thousands of Jews to defy international condemnation and move into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The settlers became a prominent political force in Israel and a major sticking point in negotiations with the Palestinians. But when Sharon came to the conclusion that Israel would be better off by removing all 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, he refused to back down.

The move won popular support across Israel but also outraged Israelis such as Arfa, who shed no tears for a man they now saw as a traitor who forced thousands of Jews from their Gaza homes and emboldened Palestinian terrorists, who viewed the pullout as an Israeli battlefield defeat.

"I can't forgive him for what he did," she said. "I think he was an evil man. We can wish death on someone if it's to prevent harm to the people you love. When someone threatens your home, you want that threat to be taken away."

In the gambit, Sharon saw an opportunity to do what he'd done for most of his life: define the conflict on his own terms. While he shut down the Gaza settlements, he pressed ahead with building a controversial separation barrier that isolates Palestinians in the West Bank and supported more Jewish housing in the occupied territory where more than 250,000 settlers already live.

Preparations for the Gaza pullout were done largely without negotiating with Palestinian leaders led by Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon long had dismissed as disingenuous peace partners. And after Arafat died in 2004, Sharon showed little desire to sit down with Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who's been unable to contain violent infighting in the weeks leading up to Palestinian legislative elections Jan. 25.

To many Palestinians, Sharon's decision to isolate their leaders was just the latest in a lifetime of political and battlefield atrocities: the 1953 commando raid on the West Bank that left more than 60 Palestinians dead; a 1982 massacre at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon by Christian militants allied with Israel while Sharon was defense minister; an inflammatory 2000 visit to the disputed Temple Mount, which Muslims know as Haram al-Sharif; and construction of the West Bank separation barrier.

"He is a criminal," said Abdul Sattar Kassem, a professor at An Najah University in Nablus, West Bank. "He has no merits whatsoever."

After the Gaza pullout, Sharon saw an opportunity to press ahead. He used the momentum in November to break from the conservative Likud Party, which he'd helped to form, and establish the new centrist Kadima Party, which is expected to formally embrace the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

At its helm, Sharon had begun laying the groundwork for a second unilateral pullout—this time from parts of the West Bank—a move that would have been much more perilous and difficult than Gaza because Israelis and Jews have a much deeper biblical connection to the West Bank.

Sharon was widely viewed as the only politician who could pull that off. And while early polls show Israeli voters still rallying around Kadima, it seems unlikely that any of its younger leaders will be willing to risk their political careers to make such a move.

That's why, as Sharon lay in the hospital fighting for his life, left-wing activists such as Etkes of Peace Now, who fought Sharon over his pro-settlement policies, found themselves rooting for him to recover.

"So much irony in this story," Etkes said in an e-mail. "We the leftists converted suddenly and started to pray for Sharon's health."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-SHARON

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060106 Kadima poll, 20060105 SHARON life, 20060105 SHARON career, 20060104 Sharon bio

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