There is a fascinating story unfolding in Israel today - the story of Ariel Sharon, the oldest of Israeli war horses, and his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, the youngest of Israeli prime ministers.
Whether Netanyahu can close a deal with Yasser Arafat when the two meet in London on May 4 may well depend on how the story between Bibi and Arik ends. The story is entitled: "Arik Sharon's Last Battle: Redemption or Revenge?"Our story opens with Sharon, age 70, walking the hills of the West Bank, each rock of which he knows, wondering whether he should give his stamp of approval to the next phase of Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. The Americans and Palestinians want a 13 percent withdrawal. Bibi hints he'll settle for 11 or 12. Sharon says 9 percent and not an inch more. Without cover from Sharon, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to move.
Why? Because Arik Sharon is still Mr. Security for many Israelis. He is the last of the Israeli leaders who were around in 1948, when black was black and white was white, and when there was no ambivalence about who were the victims - Israelis - and who had to win - Israel.
For many Israelis, only people like Sharon who were forged in a moment of clarity can be relied upon in murkier times. There is part of the Israeli myth that is still cowboys versus Indians, and Ariel Sharon is the last old sheriff from Dodge City. If he says 13 percent is OK, it's OK.
Many in Israel believe Sharon's deep quest for redemption could motivate him to play such a historic role. He is still carrying a mark of Cain for his role in the 1982 Lebanon war. An Israeli commission declared that he bore "indirect responsibility" for the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. To remove that stain, many believe Sharon is ready to play Moshe Dayan to Bibi's Menachem Begin. It was Dayan, after bungling the 1973 war, who served as Begin's foreign minister, paving the way for peace with Egypt.
But will Sharon play that role? Part of him surely wants revenge on Bibi for earlier humiliations Bibi meted out to him. And part of Sharon also must resist giving the Israeli peaceniks what they want, which is affirmation that they were right about the need for recognizing the Palestinians, when for so long they insisted that he was all wrong. There is part of Sharon that always wants to capture just one more hill.
Therefore, can someone like him make the transition to a belief that Israel can both survive and thrive without catering to these extremes? That was the transition that Dayan, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin made. Rabin embodied the center between those extremes - a center that said that Israel doesn't need the constant heroic struggle to affirm itself, because there is dignity enough, and adventure enough, and joy enough, and authenticity enough in an Israel that is the best at being normal. But Rabin was cut down by the extremes before he completed his revolution.
Yet anyone looking at Israel today can see that the revolution continues. A major shift is now under way. The Israeli center-right is finally embracing Oslo. Something is over. It's messy. It's noisy. But its implications are enormous. Sharon can help complete this revolution, or he can make it into a really ugly last battle for Israel's soul.