Four years ago this month, I visited Israel for the first time and had a meeting with Ariel Sharon. To say his public image was unfavorable would be a gross understatement. By contrast, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, the godfather of international terrorism, had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
Ironically, it was Arafat who had been responsible for Sharon's rise to power. At Camp David in 2000, President Clinton had pressured then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to offer Arafat concessions so generous many observers believed they would be impossible to turn down.
But Arafat just said no to Barak and Clinton, brushing aside the chance for a Palestinian state – something never on offer during the years the West Bank and Gaza were ruled by Jordan and Egypt respectively, or during the centuries those territories were ruled by the Ottoman Turks.
Instead, Arafat launched the “Intifada,” a terrorist war intended to wipe Israel off the map once and for all. With Israelis facing almost weekly suicide bombings in the streets of their cities, Sharon overwhelmingly defeated Barak in a 2001 election. It was an astonishing comeback for the aging warhorse.
In person, Sharon did not seem like such a tough guy. He struck me as modest and avuncular. But he was adamant that Arafat would never make peace. More than that, Arafat was directly responsible for the renewed bloodshed. The notion that Arafat regretted the slaughter of women and children but was powerless to stop such attacks was pure fiction, Sharon insisted.
And, he added, he had proof: On January 3rd 2002, just a few days before our meeting, units of the Israeli Defense Forces had seized the Karine A, a Palestinian Authority-owned freighter. As the IDF had suspected, the ship was loaded with weapons supplied by Iran, including long-range Katyusha rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, mines, sniper rifles, ammunition and more than two tons of high explosives.
Had this cargo been delivered, it would have been used to murder hundreds, maybe thousands, of Israelis. The attempt to smuggle these weapons into Gaza could not have happened without Arafat's approval and support – and it was a blatant violation of his promises. Under the Oslo Accords of 1993, Arafat had renounced terrorism. In exchange, Israeli authorities had brought him back from exile in Tunisia and installed him in power on the West Bank and Gaza where, by the time of the Barak/Clinton peace offer of 2000, Arafat's Palestinian Authority had jurisdiction over the vast majority of Palestinians.
Sharon's response was not long in coming. In the spring, he launched Operation Defensive Shield, sending tanks and troops to re-occupy Palestinian communities that Arafat had turned into terrorist bases.
At first, even President Bush objected. Within days, however, the President was persuaded by his strongest supporters – including foreign policy hawks, evangelical Christians and neo-conservatives -- that Sharon was not wrong to take the war to the terrorists.
From then on, Sharon ignored those on the left in Israel, the United States and Europe who urged him to resume negotiations with Arafat. More surprisingly, Sharon would break with his allies on the Israeli and American right who opposed making any concessions until and unless Palestinian leaders gave something tangible in return, something beyond promises meant to be broken.
Sharon embarked on a process of “disengagement,” of pursuing peace without a partner. He began to build a security barrier to prevent terrorist infiltrations. If, over time, it becomes a de facto border it will still leave 93 percent of the West Bank in Palestinian hands: slightly less than the Palestinians were offered at Camp David but more than Israeli hard-liners would cede.
And despite vehement opposition from within his Likud Party, Sharon last year withdrew every soldier and settler from Gaza – neither demanding nor expecting anything from Palestinians in return.
When I first visited Israel and met Sharon, Israel was suffering a brutal terrorist assault, one that it was not clear Israel could survive. Today, Israel is hardly out of danger – Gaza is, sadly, more than ever a terrorist safe haven and the threats from Iran's Militant Islamist regime, Hezbollah and even al-Qaeda grow more ominous every day. But the Intifada has been defeated and Palestinian terrorist attacks are down to a fraction of what they were when Sharon came to power. Terrorism remains a powerful weapon. But we now know what we didn't know four years ago: Terrorism can be beaten.
Sharon remains a controversial figure. His leadership and legacy long will be topics of debate. But that he has been a bold and decisive leader, and that he leaves a legacy – these propositions are beyond dispute.