Still in coma, Israel's former Premier Ariel Sharon may not know it, but the ideas he developed in his last years in office may be on the way of offering the first glimmer of hope in the century-old conflict over Palestine. These ideas received a strong, albeit indirect, endorsement in last week's general election in Israel that produced a new political landscape in that country.
But what are these ideas, which one could describe with the shorthand term of Sharonism?
The first is that a war that produces a victor and a vanquished bestows special responsibilities on the former. It is up to the victor to define the contours of victory and the new equilibrium that emerges after hostilities cease. The victor writes the peace treaty and the vanquished swallows it, even when the taste is bitter.
In the case of Israel this mechanism did not work because each time Israel won a war, the United Nations intervened to put the victor and the vanquished on the same level, thus making a new equilibrium conditional on a hoped-for but unlikely agreement.
The reason for this novel situation was simple: The UN had been created precisely to prevent states from going to war. After 1945 the only wars regarded as legitimate had to be fought under the banner of the UN or under the Chapter 7 of its charter and with the approval of the Security Council. Had Israel won its wars before the creation of the UN it would have been able to do what all victors had always done in history: Dictate the peace with which it is comfortable.
The problem was that the UN while preventing the victor from cashing his victory was itself unable to produce the kind of peace it liked. The result was the 57-year-long stalemate which produced four more wars, and endless misery for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Having said all that, the failure of the UN tells only part of the story.
Another key reason for the stalemate was the inability or unwillingness of successive Israeli leaders to produce a clear definition of what Israel was. From the beginning Israel has been a work in progress, an unfinished product. It is the only 20th century state in the world without a constitution. It is also one of a handful without clearly demarcated borders. It is also the only member state of the United Nations not to be recognized by more than two dozen fellow-member states.
A majority of its people would describe it as a Jewish state. But Israel is, in fact, a secular state with a majority of Jewish origin. By most account no more than a fifth of Israel's Jewish-born citizens are Jews in the religious sense.
Despite all that, popular imagination in Israel was gripped by the Zionist dream of a "Greater Israel" which, in its original version, envisaged a state between the Nile and the Euphrates and, in its modified version, sought a home between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. In other words, for most Israelis, and some Jews across the globe, Israel remained more of an idea than a classical nation-state.
All that began to change in the 1990s when some Israeli leaders gradually endorsed two-state solution to the conflict.
To create two states it is imperative to decide the shape and size of each of them. The Madrid Conference was launched in 1992 with the aim of doing that, but failed. The Oslo process was also doomed to failure. The reason was that the Israelis and Palestinians would not, indeed could not, agree on the form and content of the two states.
Sharonism was developed in response to those problems.
The first thing it did was to revive the classical rule of war that makes it incumbent on the victor to state what kind of peace he wants. But to do that it was essential for Sharon to decide how exactly Israel was to be delineated. This was done with the decision to withdraw from Gaza and plans to withdraw from most of the West Bank.
No one quite knows the limits of the proposed withdrawals.
Under one scenario Israel will give up all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to the west of the fence, or wall, it has been building since 2003.
Under another scenario the withdrawal would leave the West Bank punctured by Jewish settlements - a geographical version of the Swiss cheese.
Either scenario would have the merit of spelling out where Israel imagines itself to be. It would end the Nile-to-Euphrates and the River Jordan-to-The Mediterranean dreams. It would mean the effective end of Zionism, allowing Israel to translate itself from a cause into a nation-state. It would also allow the Palestinians, and beyond them Arab and non-Arab supporters, to know exactly what to accept or to oppose.
Sharon also realized that waiting for an ideal Palestinian partner was futile. No Palestinian leader could ever be ideal from the Israeli point of view because none could accept the maximum that Israel could offer, if only because there would always be some within his own camp who would accuse him of treason if not actually murder him. Like in all other wars in history the ideal peace partner for the victor was the victor himself.
It is, of curse, possible that the Palestinians might not accept what Israel is willing to offer. They might regard the Israeli peace as unjust, even scandalous. But that would not be unprecedented. There is not a single peace in history that could be described as just. In fact, peace and justice never go together whenever there is winner and a loser. History is full of instances of the vanquished not accepting the peace dictated by the victor. Once Israel has imposed its version of peace the Palestinians might well continue to contest it, diplomatically and by the force of arms. But then that would be a conflict between two states, not a clash between two "causes." All possible future wars, which may never happen, would create their own realities and dynamics for the peace that follows them. Fear of future wars should not prevent the two sides from closing the chapter of past ones.
Japan still refuses to sign a peace treaty with Russia because Moscow continues to occupy the Kuril islands. Mexico still claims Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California as part of its national heirloom. Iranians, in their national imagination, have never accepted the loss of the Caucasus and Central Asia to Russia. Syria claims north and east Lebanon, and the Turkish province of Iskenderun, as part of its patrimony. Of the 22 member states of the Arab League 18 have territorial claims against one another. The list could go on.
What the Israeli electorate has just done is of great historic significant. It has voted for a shrinking, not an ever elastic, Israel. It has also assumed responsibility for shaping the peace rather than blaming the Palestinians for not being good partners.
The next Israeli government's key task is to start by creating one of the two proposed states: The State of Israel in its definitive shape. Once that is done the creation of the second, the Palestinian one, might require the cooperation of the international community. The areas left under the Palestinian Authority, now dominated by Hamas, could revert to the UN mandate under a revised version of the rules in force in 1947. The new Israeli leadership would be wise to offer the Palestinians something that at least a substantial number of them can accept, and not a version of Bantustans that few Palestinians would be prepared to swallow.
The Palestinian Authority may initially refuse to recognize the newly defined Israel. The newly defined Israel will also be opposed by the diehard partisans of "Greater Israel". Over time, however, all protagonists might learn to appreciate Democritus's celebrated dictum: Desire what you get!