As a massive stroke ended Ariel Sharon's tenure as Israel's prime minister, commentators around the world were predicting negative consequences for the long-stalled Israeli/Palestinian peace process.

Love him or hate him--and there are few people who don't have strong feelings about Sharon--it is almost universally agreed to that during the past five years he has matured into an elder statesman. To the surprise of many, Sharon's powerful commitment to the "Land of Israel" as envisioned by Zionism's founding fathers had apparently been tempered by the realization that sacrifices and hard choices were necessary to guarantee the survival of the state he helped build and, from the perspective of Israelis if not most Palestinians, defended for the past half-century.

Yet the pessimism over the future of Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians is unwarranted. This is because for all his singularity as a political figure, Sharon's core beliefs and goals represent the mainstream of Zionist and Israeli thought and policy during the past century. He was the "bulldozer" and the architect of Israel's settlement policies; he famously urged Israelis to "move, run, grab more hills, expand the territory" based on his belief--one long shared by Zionist and Israeli leaders--that "everything that's grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don't grab will be in their hands."

But Sharon succeeded in pushing Israel's political system to the right and deep into the occupied Palestinian territories--much of which, in a sad irony, constitute the heart of biblical Israel--precisely because his instincts and policies matched those of the majority of Israelis, who have always lived suspended between the desire to become a modern "normal" country on the one hand, and the deep-seated wish to reforge the biblical links with the land of their ancestors that sustained them through two millennia of exile that culminated tragically in the Holocaust.

Sharon's biography is in fact the gold standard of Israeli identity and the idea of the "new Jew" on which it was founded. He was born in Palestine, which made him a sabra-the hard-and-prickly-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside fruit adopted by modern Israel as a national symbol of its people. He was a farmer, a settler, and a soldier--a combination that for the founding fathers of Israel, particularly David Ben Gurion, was essential for Zionism to succeed in a hostile land (Sharon joined the Haganah, or pre-state Jewish defense force, in 1942 at the age of 14).

He forged a deep and in many ways mystical (and according to one Sharon observer, "erotic") attachment to the land, a goal of Zionist educational policies since the early days of its settlement efforts. Indeed, the deep resonance of the farmer-settler-soldier paradigm in Israeli consciousness explains why he moved so easily from the army to a series of cabinet posts in charge of Israeli agriculture, housing, and settlements.

The new Jew was also supposed to be a tough Jew. This was not just a response to the Holocaust, although the magnitude of the calamity reinforced this ideal. Rather, from the beginning of the second "aliya," the wave of Zionist Jewish settlement that started at the turn of the twentieth century, the largely East European and often socialist Jews who became Zionism's pioneers sought both to work and defend the land on which they settled. This put them into conflict with the Palestinian Arab population--not just with those who lived or worked the land before it was sold to Jews, but also with those who during the first aliya, beginning in the 1880s, had worked as both farmers and guards for the early Jewish settlements.

A cunning, ruthless father figure

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  • What Israeli novelist David Grossman has described as Sharon's combination of "primal urges, of violence, of combat, cunning and brillian[ce].... brave[ry] and corrupt[ion]" are precisely the combination of qualities, however unpleasant some of them are, that were necessary to build a Jewish state in an overwhelmingly Arab country.
    Grossman also described another quality in Sharon--unbridled leadership--that has deep roots in Israeli political culture.