“When I was young, the whole country was young,” wrote Israel’s late national poet Yehuda Amichai. He was born in 1928, just four years before Ariel Sharon. With the country in as precarious a state as it has been since the failure of the Oslo accords, it no longer seems so surprising that its modern history spans the length of one person’s life. Now another of those lives, one linked unusually strongly to that history, hangs in the balance.
Sharon joined Israel’s early guerrilla resistance force, the Haganah, at the age of 14; commanded a company in the 1948 War of Independence; and returned to the army in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to lead an armored division across the Suez Canal. He was called a war criminal for his role as Defense Minister when civilians were massacred at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatilla in 1982; but in 2001, when he succeeded to his last job in 30 years of government service, that of prime minister, it seemed that the country was exhausted enough to accept him as a peacemaker.
When last I visited Israel, in 2003, it was widely believed that only Sharon, the lifelong hawk, had the credibility to negotiate with Arafat without losing the support of the hardliners. Despite the scandals, the continuing violence, the blight of the “security barrier” snaking across the country, Sharon seemed to deliver on this promise with the pullout from Gaza last year. His new centrist party, Kadima–Forward–was an unusual example of an old man’s self-reinvention in the direction of moderation.
Now Yasir Arafat is dead, Sharon is dying, Gaza is immersed in violence. It used to be conventional wisdom that peaceful coexistence would not come to Israel and Palestine until a new generation of Palestinians had grown up content to trade peace for a claim to a home they never knew. Today it looks like the opposite might happen: a new generation on both sides of the border might never even know the dream that the fighting was for.