DESPITE THE repercussions of his mild stroke Dec. 18, Ariel Sharon dominates Israel's political landscape like a modern-day colossus, straddling two stunning realities that he himself helped to fashion.
First, the idea of a "greater Israel," which Sharon once championed, is dead, paradoxically by his own hand. And just as dead is the idea of a conflict-ending agreement with Palestinians on refugees, borders and Jerusalem, an idea Sharon has done his utmost to subvert. It is within these parameters that the next chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be written. And Sharon, with one eye on history and the other on his own mortality, plans to be its principal author.
Sharon has already proved that whatever the odds against him, he should not be counted out. His political comeback after his ignominious role in Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon was nothing short of miraculous. He has outlasted Yasser Arafat, outmaneuvered his Likud Party rivals and co-opted key Labor Party figures, including Shimon Peres. At 77, Sharon is like some Israeli version of the Pac-Man video game character, the leader of a new centrist party who threatens to gobble up Israel's political establishment.
Sharon's position -- which reflects the current mood of the Israeli public -- has long been clear: No agreement to end the conflict with Palestinians is possible that would both protect Israeli interests and satisfy Palestinian requirements. Instead, Israel must prepare and position itself wisely to answer its critics, improve its demographic situation and ensure its security.
Nowhere has Sharon's pragmatism been better demonstrated than in Israel's disengagement from Gaza: 1.5 million Palestinians are no longer a demographic threat to the Jewish population of Israel; its army has been relieved of the corrosive effects of the Gaza occupation; its strategic ties with the United States are intact; and the onus for responsible behavior in Gaza has been shifted to the Palestinians. Moreover, for the first time in Israel's history, an Israeli prime minister succeeded in establishing a permanent western border for Israel, with the approval of the international community.
Should the prime minister be reelected in March (and only death or incapacitation is likely to prevent this), he will turn to setting a permanent border on the east as well -- most likely unilaterally but possibly through negotiations with the Palestinians. This will be no easy task. The Palestinians will demand close to 100% of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem, and neither the Arabs nor the Europeans will be as supportive of Israel's position as they were in Gaza. Israelis themselves will face tough choices: withdrawal from large areas of the West Bank, dismantling some settlements and much tougher opposition from settlers.
But Sharon's public, buoyed by Gaza disengagement, is ready to be led by a tough, pragmatic and historic figure whom they trust. He will surely not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he believes he can produce an outcome that makes Israel more secure, with fewer Palestinians within its borders, and still leave the nation in control of key settlement blocks: the strategically important high ground along the ridge lines in the east and most of Jerusalem.
He may be right. With the settler movement delegitimized, the Palestinian house in disarray and the United States both preoccupied with other matters and supportive of his approach, the field is remarkably clear.
Sharon is still very much the bulldozer of Israeli politics, but he has tempered his excesses and moderated his extremes. What remains in the new Sharon is a nascent statesman with a mission and the public support to carry it out. What better wind to power the sails of a man late in his years and looking for a legacy, a man who knows exactly where he wants to go and how he plans to get there.