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Greenfield: History turns on fate's whim

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN

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CNN's Jeff Greenfield

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Jeff Greenfield
Ariel Sharon
Israel
Middle East

(CNN) -- Once when French President Charles de Gaulle heard an aide describe someone as "indispensable," the general replied: "The graveyards are full of indispensable men.''

It's a reminder that even the most consequential and iconic of public figures are subject to the same whims of fate and circumstance as the rest of us, and history sometimes turns on such a moment.

As I write, the life of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hangs in the balance. Whether he survives or not, it is highly doubtful his public life will continue.

What this means is that both men at the center of the perpetual Middle East muddle a short time ago -- Sharon and Yasser Arafat -- will be absent from any future decisions; both victims not of an assassin's bullet, but of the kinds of maladies that strike down numberless ordinary mortals every day of the year.

But take a look back through relatively recent history -- even just American history -- and you can see how the survival of the most significant leaders is a matter of little more than chance.

Had President-elect Frankin Roosevelt arrived in Miami's Bayfront Park just a few minutes earlier, would-be assassin Giuseppi Zangara would have had a clear shot -- and there would have been no New Deal, no optimistic, charismatic leader to guide America through the Depression and World War II.

Had president-elect John Kennedy not been accompanied by his family on a pre-inaugural visit to church, would-be assassin Richard Pavlick would have blown Kennedy up in a suicide bombing -- and there would have been no JFK to calm the waters during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Conversely, had it been raining in Dallas on that November Friday in 1963, the bubbletop on Kennedy's limousine would have protected him from Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle.

And had John Hinckley's bullet hit Ronald Reagan an inch or two away from where it did, the new president would have bled to death -- and the Reagan era would have lasted eight weeks instead of eight years.

By most accounts, Ariel Sharon would have led his new, centrist Kadima party to victory in the upcoming Israeli elections, giving the one-time hawk of hawks the mandate to move toward some kind of new arrangement with the Palestinians.

In his absence, all sorts of possibilities are on the table: from another chance for onetime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to win power on an uncompromisingly hard-line stand, to a caretaker government without the political power to take what Sharon himself called "risks" for peace. Such are the consequences of a small accident inside the brain of a single, mortal human being.

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