By ROGER COHEN
International Herald Tribune
The general is still in his labyrinth. But it has become a labyrinth of sleep. For the first time since its foundation in 1948, Israel must fight a war without him on the front lines or in command. Israelis know he is there, at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, and they feel his silence as a vacuum.
Perhaps none of this would have happened if he had been in control. The Arabs reviled the general's brutality, but they also knew his strength and cunning. Hezbollah would not have dared make its deadly cross-border raid with him in power. You probe uncertainty, but not determination.
Perhaps. On the other hand, the history of this 58-year-old conflict that Ariel Sharon knew and shaped as no other suggests it is larger than, and resistant to, even the biggest personalities.
Sharon once believed he could tame Lebanon and deliver security for Israel on its northern border. But 18 years after the 1982 invasion he oversaw, Israel pulled back, helping to forge the myth of the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. What other Arab leader could face down the Israelis and deliver rockets on Haifa?
Each side needs its mythical figures in a fight of such proportions. Each side needs somehow to incarnate its longing, its fears, its impossible aspirations in a single figure. Desperation demands that hope be personified somehow.
The reality is more prosaic: two national movements contending for the same strip of land, seeing each other dimly at times before relapsing into blindness or denial, while the graves multiply on the ancient, terraced hills.
I have been thinking about the general, about Sharon, locked in the chamber of his six-month-old coma as history comes full circle on him, and as his successor, Ehud Olmert, struggles to demonstrate that he, too, is resolute and that Israel's enemies will always pay the sort of price Sharon exacted for attacks on the Jewish state.
The general's silence is riveting. It contains all the ineffability of this conflict, whose possible resolution just about everyone can envisage, most people on both sides can embrace, and nobody can deliver.
It is the silence of a 78-year-old man who fought the Palestinians again and again - as a platoon leader, as an officer, as commanding general - and came late in life to the grudging acceptance that the Jewish homeland he loved with a visceral passion could only survive through some trade-off with a weakened enemy. Before he could fully explore that transaction, a stroke silenced him in January.
It was in the name of this belief that he founded the centrist party, Kadima, that Olmert, as prime minister, now heads. Kadima means "Forward." But what does forward mean when Israel seems to be hurtling backward to places like Lebanon where it has already suffered its share of disillusionment?
Sharon never defined Israel's destination precisely - he was unbending in his commitment to Israeli security but infinitely malleable in its pursuit - and he was a master of ambiguity.
But this much we know: He had come to be enough of a believer in a two-state solution to be ready to exit Gaza, dismember the Likud party he had helped found in 1973 and turn on the very settlers whose movement he had orchestrated. Not bad for a late-life volte-face in the name of Israel's coexistence beside some sort of Palestine.
So, I try to imagine his gravelly voice breaking the silence: "You can never trust them. Never, ever. They understand power as they understand pain. We know what happens to the Jews when they give an inch and we know how much words and pieces of paper are worth. Hezbollah has to hurt now, even if its pain is shared by all of Lebanon."
And continuing: "These are our tactics. But they must not be confused with strategy. We have set our strategy, from which all this is a diversion, and we must return to it as soon as we can."
Olmert has been thrust into the role of carrying Sharon's mantle. Bereft of the general's military credentials, he must now prove his mettle. This compensatory urge, no doubt, explains some of the ferocity of Israel's onslaught on Lebanon. But Sharon was also a thinker. When a path led nowhere, he wheeled about.
Hezbollah cannot be eliminated any more than Hamas. For every martyr, there is a 14-year-old volunteer. Only through the marginalizing, and consequent weakening, of the extremists can Israel forge a stable path.
That requires creative, bold diplomacy. In the unease of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Gulf states at the actions and strength of Hezbollah lie new possibilities for Israel.
The rising Shiite tide has made traditional Sunni powers wary enough to half-side with Israel even as it bombs Beirut. Their criticism of Hezbollah's "irresponsibility" has been extraordinary.
Olmert, with concerted American help, needs to reach out everywhere he can in a shifting Arab world to try to isolate Hezbollah and Hamas. One way to do that is to get back to working with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on the two-state solution that alone can break the region's destructive gyre. An international "stabilization force" in Lebanon, as Olmert in Sharon's stead knows, will only muddy the waters.
President George W. Bush has pledged that democracies are the answers for a dysfunctional Middle East. But right now, America's closest ally, Israel, is bombing two of the newest democracies - Lebanon and Palestine-in-Gaza - while the third, Iraq, is also awash in bombs.
Sharon, ever the realist, might have allowed himself a smile or even a guffaw at this irony. He had no illusions about his neighborhood. Nobody understood better the centrality of force. But he also came to understand its limits.
If the warrior-hero of Israel's long existential struggle had reached this view - and Lebanon and Sabra and Chatila played their part in his evolution - it seems his successor should be carefully attuned to the silence at Sheba.