It’s no accident that they called him The Bulldozer. As a soldier and as a politician, Ariel Sharon was a man of action. Usually for better, sometimes for worse, a man who got things done.
Abducting Jordanian soldiers in the 1950s. Crossing the Suez Canal and never allowing himself to be rocked backward in the desperate chaos of 1973. Invading Lebanon beyond the prime ministerial mandate in 1982. Building settlements. Building homes for Soviet immigrants. Dismantling settlements and departing Gaza. And, towards the end, gearing up to do what might need to be done to thwart Iran, and preparing to try to determine Israel’s West Bank borders.
If, early in life, the military man of action was impulsive and hard to restrain, Sharon the prime minister was more polished and subtle. No longer a bulldozer, but still, critically, pro-active.
And that was the secret of his astounding late-life popularity among Israelis. He had appalled the left by invading Lebanon. He had horrified the right by dismantling the entire settlement enterprise in Gaza and given signs that he might countenance a far-reaching West Bank withdrawal too, if it could be done while maintaining what he deemed Israel’s vital security needs. And others had been alienated by the never-proven corruption allegations that swirled around him.
Yet he became a beloved prime minister, a trusted prime minister, a repeatedly electable prime minister, because of that restless determination to act to protect this country and its people. The figure once beyond the pale — stripped of his beloved defense minister’s job for failing to anticipate and prevent the Sabra and Shatila massacre — had metamorphosed into Israel’s indefatigable political superman. He was so much larger than life that almost everybody believed him when he instantly returned from the first, minor stroke assuring us that it was nothing… and no matter that he was 77 and extremely overweight.
It is Sharon the indomitable man of action that so many Israelis feel distraught to have lost now — or, more accurately, lost eight years ago. He was, late in life, likable and gracious and considerate; he had always been rapier smart and spectacularly courageous. But it is the loss of Sharon’s pro-active qualities that is most being mourned, because it is those qualities that are in shortest supply among those he has left behind.
He wasn’t always right, not even in those last, super-productive prime ministerial years. Unilateralism, most notably, lies buried under the rubble of the rockets that follow Israel when it leaves enemy territory without solid partnerships. But he was always striding ahead: He got on with the business of leading Israel — pulled out his maps and his plans, charted his course, galvanized others. He exuded competence. He broadcast a spectacularly comforting — if not always justified — certainty that his way was the correct way, and that if Israel fell into line behind him, everything would turn out fine. While all around was hesitation, Ariel Sharon was moving forward.
This is a lousy region. It’s full of bloodshed and cynicism and religious extremism. The international community has largely had enough of it. Most of the world understandably prefers to run rather than get sucked into fixing it. And if Israel can be misrepresented as a source, even the source, of the Middle East’s intractable awfulness, well, that assuages the guilt a little.
So Iran, outrageously, is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear threshold state, its rapacious ideological and territorial ambitions tolerated, its open hostility to Israel indulged, because the alternative is just so awkward and demanding. So Assad gets to survive, and keep on massacring his people, while a once-admirable opposition becomes increasingly radical. And the Palestinian conflict lingers on, the relative moderates too scared to defy the single-minded extremists.
And our leaders, when they aren’t bickering among themselves or seeking to outmaneuver each other, complain bitterly and plaintively and protractedly about the unfairness of it all — the terrible international deals with Iran, the lack of will over Syria, the exaggerated empathy for the intransigent Palestinians. Defensive, reactive, they try to muddle through, to minimize the damage, to find the least bad of the options and the courses that others are imposing upon them.
Whereas Sharon would have said two things: First, “Chevre, look how far we’ve come.” And, second, “Chevre, this is what we’re going to do now. Come on. To work.”