After Rabin and Sharon, Israel lacks direction.
Rabin's peace process destroyed Israeli national security and revitalized terrorism as a force in political affairs. Had he lived, he might have turned away from it. The idea had been thrust on him by the fringe left and he had grasped it as a hedge against the political oblivion of a leftist party that had lost credibility in a new Israel no longer dominated by the Socialist vision of cooperatives and bureaucracies.
That door was shut permanently by Rabin's death and Sharon's rise to power was made possible by the terrorist fallout from the peace process. Israelis had attempted to make earlier course corrections by voting for Netanyahu over Peres, but Netanyahu, proved unable to change the course of the nation. And so, after Barak's disastrous retreat from Lebanon, Sharon's hour came.
There had only been two politically acceptable options in Israel for dealing with terrorism; negotiated appeasement or holding the line. The latter meant making occasional forays after a terrorist atrocity into the territories under Palestinian Authority control, arresting a few wanted terrorists and then pulling back, and hoping the public would be satisfied.
Voters expected Sharon to go further. And he did.
After the Passover Massacre in 2002, Sharon issued a brief statement in which he dropped one phrase. "As we speak, the IDF is already inside the 'Mukta'a' (Arafat's compound) in Ramallah." Israeli forces took the compound and arrested Marwan Barghouti, the terrorist leader behind much of the violence, who has yet to be released despite international protests.
In a speech to the Knesset, Sharon said, "Our dead lie in a long row: women and children, young and old. And we stand facing them, facing the vacuum created by their murders, and we are speechless."
"The murderous gangs have a leader, a purpose, and a directing hand. They have one mission: to chase us out of here, from everywhere — from our home in Elon Moreh and from the supermarket in Jerusalem, from the cafe in Tel Aviv and from the restaurant in Haifa, from the synagogue in Netzarim — where the murderers slaughtered… worshippers, walking in their prayer shawls to morning prayers — and from the Seder table in Netanya."
"And there is one dispatcher: Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat."
But it would not be Arafat who would chase Israeli Jews out of the synagogue in Netzarim. Sharon would do that. All that would be left for Arafat's gangs would be to burn down the synagogue after its worshipers were gone.
Of the two options, negotiating or holding the line, Sharon had decided to choose a third option.
Israeli generals have a weakness for seeking an impossible alternative and then making it work. Sometimes they succeed, other times they fail.
Sharon aspired to cut the Gordian Knot of negotiations and terrorism by putting as much space, real or virtual, as possible between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli population. There were to be no more negotiations and no more fruitless raids. Arafat could have the land he already controlled and would be kept out of the rest. It was a retreat meant as a consolidation.
The strategy was not an original one. The 'separation wall' that every trendy lefty denounces was begun by Rabin. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the ethnic cleansing of the Jews living there wrapped up the strategy. But it was a bad strategy from the start.
Separation worked and it didn't. Israeli casualties dropped sharply since 2002. The days of the constant urban suicide bombing have receded into history. Israeli parents still worry, but the atmosphere isn't what it was a decade ago and many Israelis are once again able to convince themselves that a West Bank withdrawal will stop putting soldiers and settlers at risk and end the terrorism threat.
Sharon, like Rabin, left behind an unfinished strategy, but his was the more tangled one. If Rabin was making a terrible mistake, many wonder whether Sharon had a bigger plan than mere separation; an endgame that would have shifted the strategic landscape.
Death has closed the door on these questions as firmly as it did on Rabin's second thoughts.
After Sharon, the country has floundered with no meaningful strategy except the old one of holding a shrinking line. The separation wall helped keep out suicide bombers, but not rockets and for the first time in a long time, rockets struck Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The country's current predicament was shaped by two men, one born in 1922 and the other in 1928; both products of the old left and of the military establishment. The baby boomer new left has done its damage, but there has been little in the way of leadership from that generation. Now that generation is also growing old; it has done a decent job of modernizing and privatizing Israel, but it has no answers to its strategic questions.
The Netanyahus and Baraks, the Israeli leaders who were born in the forties, are now in their sixties, and it isn't likely that they will dominate Israel into their seventies and eighties the way that Sharon, Rabin and Peres did. Their successors, men like Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, were born in the sixties and seventies and they are now coming into their own.
It will be up to Generation X to solve Israel's strategic problem. That is assuming that they ever get the chance.
Israel cannot afford to exist in twilight. If it were in a peaceful part of the world, if its people were not murderously hated by billions, if it were not constantly at war, it might be able to move through an undistinguished prosperity without worry or doubt; but that is not its fate.
The Jewish State cannot persist in twilight. It will either fall into the darkness of an old night or step into the light of a new day.
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