AS Ariel Sharon fights for his life, his sudden removal from centre stage has already had the effect of a political earthquake in the Middle East. It is not only Israel that ponders the post-Sharon era with apprehension. Judging by the coverage of the Arab media in recent days, the broader Middle East is also concerned about the imponderables of a post-Sharon era.
While the al-Jazeera satellite channel was airing the jubilant utterances of radical Arabs over Sharon's stroke, more moderate Arabs appearing on the rival channel al-Arabiyah acknowledged that the Israeli leader had become the Palestinians' "most serious partner for peace".
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has described Sharon as "a man of peace", echoing his Tunisian counterpart Zin El Abidine Ben Ali's "esteem and admiration" for the Israeli leader. Sharon also has a surprising number of friends in other Arab countries, from Oman to Mauritania, Qatar, Jordan and Morocco. In the wider Muslim world, Sharon has fostered a "working dialogue" with leaders in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with a view to establishing diplomatic ties.
Things were different even a year ago, as far as Sharon's image in Arab and Islamic countries was concerned. At that time the former general was seen by many as the quintessential "Zionist enemy", as portrayed by years of propaganda.
What changed that was what Israel's interim prime minister Ehud Olmert describes as "the Gaza magic". This was the first time that an Israeli leader had made a unilateral withdrawal from disputed Arab territory without being subjected to internal or external pressures. At the same time, Sharon proceeded with the construction of his "security fence", and insisted there would be no further unilateral withdrawals.
All that gave Sharon a new image, one that resembles a holograph.
Seen from one angle, Sharon appeared as the man of peace that a majority of Israelis have longed for since the 1980s. The fact that he promised that there would be no more withdrawals did not bother the "peace-now" Israelis, who were more convinced by what they saw in Gaza than what they heard from Sharon.
Seen from another angle, the Sharon holograph presented a leader who had given up Gaza in a tactical move to be better able to hang on to the West Bank. That image appealed not only to Likudniks, Sharon's former party colleagues, but also to the more enthusiastic partisans of Greater Israel. They preferred to ignore what they saw in Gaza and focus on what Sharon said about his determination not to make any more unilateral concessions.
The holograph earned Sharon a place that no previous Israeli leader had enjoyed in public opinion. According to most recent polls, almost two-thirds of all Israelis believed that Sharon was the man to lead the country at this moment. That would almost certainly not have been translated into Knesset seats for Kadima, Sharon's new party, in March's election. But enough of that support would have come in the form of votes to give Sharon a lead to reclaim the premiership.
Was the Sharon holograph an illusion or, worse still, a political conjuror's trick to mislead friends and confuse enemies? No. Sharonism, to coin a phrase, reflects the complex realities of the Israel-Palestine solution.
Sharon is an instinctual politician, an increasingly rare breed, in the sense that he can cut through the metapolitical stuff that renders political decision-making difficult or, at times, impossible.
As a professional soldier, Sharon saw that Israel had won all its wars with the Arabs in military terms but failed to translate those victories into lasting political gains. At some point he must have wondered why.
For a war to be won it is not enough for one side to claim victory, although that is essential. It is also necessary for one side to admit defeat. The problem in the case of the Arab-Israeli wars, however, was that the side that had won every time was not allowed to claim victory while the side that had lost was prevented from admitting defeat.
This was a novel situation in history, throughout which the victor and the vanquished had always acknowledged their respective positions and moved beyond it in accordance with a peace imposed by the victor.
In the Israeli-Arab case this had not been done because each time the UN had intervened to put the victor and the vanquished on an equal basis and lock them into a problematic situation in the name of a mythical quest for an impossible peace.
In this novel situation, bizarre new concepts were invented to prevent the normal mechanisms of war and peace from functioning. These include such concepts as land for peace and peace with justice.
There is, however, not a single instance in history in which the winner of a war has given the loser any land in exchange for peace. Nor is there a single instance in which justice and peace have gone together as Siamese twins. In every case the winner wins the land and gives the loser peace. In every case the peace that is imposed is unjust to the loser and just to the winner.
Without going far back into history, it is sufficient to glance at some of the dozens of wars in Europe, Asia and Africa in recent decades to see that they all ended with a peace designed, if not dictated, by the winner. Thus for more than 50 years Israel and the Arabs have been asked to achieve what no other warring parties have ever achieved.
Israel-Palestine became the only conflict to defy a resolution. Successive Israeli governments preferred to wait until there was a Palestinian partner that would accept the kind of peace Israel could offer. This was mirrored by the Palestinians, who were asked by their Arab brothers and others in the UN to wait until Israel offered a peace they would like.
Sharon understood that if such a formula remained in force there would never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It was necessary for the victor to claim victory, regardless of what anyone else said. It was also necessary for the victor to take unilateral action by imposing the peace it could live with.
Paradoxically, many Palestinians say, even in public, that they would rather see Sharonist unilateralism at work than a prolongation of the stalemate that has lasted since 1948. It was clear that Sharon, his denials notwithstanding, was planning to claim victory for Israel and impose an Israeli peace.
That Israeli peace would see Gaza and perhaps up to 90 per cent of the West Bank allocated to a putative Palestinian state, while Israel would demarcate its permanent border on the ground, part of which would run along the security fence.
That would not be the kind of land-for-peace deal that UN resolutions have called for since 1968, nor would it satisfy the radical Arabs, who would not see any peace as just without the elimination of Israel.
Sharon may never return to the helm. But Sharonism need not fade away. It is still possible for Israel to create on the ground the kind of peace it can live with and then let the Palestinians decide whether or not they, too, can live with it. My guess is that they will.