When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke on Jan. 4, the entire complexion of Israeli politics changed, probably forever. Although Sharon may partially recover, his political career is almost certainly over. With Sharon’s departure from the historical stage, the hold of Israel’s founding generation on its politics is coming to an end; today, only 82-year-old former Prime Minister Shimon Peres remains active in politics.
With the passing of Sharon’s generation, Israel is entering a new era. The men and women who founded and largely ruled Israel for the past half century — Sharon, Peres, Menachem Begin, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin — passed their formative years under the British mandate that ruled Palestine before 1947 and the subsequent struggle to establish Israeli independence. Surrounded by hostile Arab states and with the Holocaust a fresh memory, the struggle for national survival was always paramount.
Like much of his generation, Sharon participated in the struggle to establish and protect Israel his entire life. He was a fighter in the Haganah, the largest underground militia battling the British and the Arabs, then spent over three decades in the army before entering politics. Such experiences are typical for Israeli leaders of Sharon’s generation, perpetually consumed with the existential threat surrounding Israel from all sides.
Insecurity has bred in Israel a political culture and style of politics that prizes firmness and decisiveness. From annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 to building a security fence to keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israel and assassinating the leaders of terrorist organizations, Israeli leaders have never shied from acting aggressively in the interest of security, even at the price of international opprobrium. To be sure, much of this opprobrium, whether the UN’s notorious “Zionism is racism” resolution or European condemnation of the security fence, is either pure hypocrisy or pure cant.
Nonetheless, Israeli leaders (Sharon included) have rarely evinced much concern for what the rest of the world thinks of them. Given the magnitude of the threats Israel has confronted ever since 1947, its leaders can be forgiven for deciding that, if no one else would stand up for Israel, they would do it themselves. It is noteworthy that Peres, the only Israeli leader of Sharon’s generation who evinced a greater degree of concern for making friends in the world, is widely perceived as a failure, as is his younger fellow traveler Ehud Barak.
No future leader of Israel (unless, improbably, Peres returns from the wilderness) will have any adult memory of a time before Israel existed — or of the Holocaust. Although insecurity remains a fact of life for most Israelis, it is a different kind of insecurity from that which the founding generation experienced. Sharon’s successors will have grown up in a world in which the existence of Israel was a fait accompli, something to be defended (as in 1967 and 1972), but not to be created in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
With the struggle for existence won, Israel can now focus on becoming a “normal” country. This development is already underway, as even Sharon recognized. By withdrawing from Gaza and then breaking with the Likud Party to form a new centrist grouping called Kadima, Sharon acknowledged that the old certainties of Israeli politics are giving way. Sharon’s policy of unilaterally disengaging from the Palestinians seems to be working. By ending the close proximity between Israelis and Palestinians in the territories, Sharon took a significant step toward diminishing Israelis’ insecurity. The struggle with the Palestinians is not over, but with the disastrous failure of the second intifada and the death of Yasir Arafat, a cold peace is gradually emerging. At the same time, the U.S. invasion of Iraq — whatever its other consequences — has sufficiently frightened countries like Libya and Syria into limiting their support for Palestinian terrorism.
Israel’s traditional focus on security is in part the result of objective circumstances, namely the reality of being surrounded by states and peoples actively working for Israel’s destruction. At the same time, there is also a subjective side to Israel’s response to that insecurity. Shaped by the maelstrom of the Holocaust and the struggle for independence, Sharon’s generation trusted in only its own strength to defend and preserve what they had created. For the generation now coming to power, there are no memories of a time when Israel did not exist. The success of Sharon’s generation in ensuring Israeli survival means that the new generation of leaders can now focus on the next step, bringing Israel fully into the international community. That opportunity may prove to be Sharon’s most lasting legacy.
Jeff Mankoff is a sixth-year graduate student in history.