Ariel Sharon has redefined the landscape for American Jews on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. Like Richard Nixon, who left his anti-Communist past behind in order to go to China, he has leveraged his right-wing credentials to establish a new centrism.
The prime minister has confounded his detractors by contradicting his former self. No Israeli leader, after all, put more cracks in the edifice of American Jewish support for Israel than the earlier incarnation of Ariel Sharon.
His prosecution of the Lebanon war, his alleged culpability in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, his central role in the settlement movement – all these provoked the first meaningful criticism of Israel by American Jews.
Bold, aggressive, reckless, Sharon embodied the aspects of Israeli character that American Jews from their positions of physical security and material comfort most crave and most reject. Not only were Sharon's wartime actions controversial, so was his very personality.
In the wake of the Lebanon invasion, polls found that for the first time a plurality of American Jews endorsed the concept of "territorial compromise" in the West Bank and Gaza, which certainly was not the policy of Menachem Begin's ruling Likud.
While this shift in opinion did not afford the drama and passion of public demonstrations in Israel itself, the American dissent ruptured decades of virtually unanimous and unquestioning backing for Israel.
During the Oslo period, when Sharon appeared to be yesterday's man, American Jewry had divided on the land-for-peace issue in an asymmetrical way. Most polls found that 60 percent or 70 percent of American Jews supported the concept, which was a particularly safe stand to take when it meant aligning with the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
Yet this majority was largely passive, rarely motivated to act, and it was out-organized and out-maneuvered by the minority on the American Jewish right wing, for whom opposing Oslo was a priority task.
In retrospect, one can also see that the epochal optimism associated with Oslo – the vision of open borders, economic cooperation, and cultural exchange with the Palestinians – made American Jewish support a rickety structure.
When all those hopes died in the Ramallah police station and outside the Dolphinarium disco, the liberal and moderate bulk of American Jews lost their foundation. Some moved to the political right; many more were gripped by a paralysis, a crisis of faith. The longtime foes of Oslo, meanwhile, had their season of saying, "We told you so."
Now, of all people, Ariel Sharon has rattled the existing order.
In Israel, he may well have followed the public more than led it in building the separation barrier and disengaging from Gaza. In America, though, Jews prefer to be "two steps behind rather than two steps ahead of the prime minister on security issues," as Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee put it. Here, Sharon has driven the Jewish discussion and the realignment.
As the architect of Gaza withdrawal, Sharon rendered the policy nearly invulnerable to attack from the American Jewish right. Who exactly was going to call him weak on security? At the same time, the liberals and moderates had to come to terms with the reality that the so-called "bulldozer" of the settlement enterprise had applied the same force of will to undoing one large chunk of it. Who was going to complain about results?
There is very little optimism in this American Jewish center, and that augers well for its sturdiness. As Bayme points out, two sober assessments – the need for defensible borders and the looming threat of an Arab majority between the river and the sea – informed the Gaza pullout.
Sharon has not promised the jubilee, and so when Palestinian violence occurs, it will not dash any sweet illusions. The American Jewish center, like its Israeli counterpart, is built to hold.
Samuel G. Freedman is professor of journalism at Columbia University.