There is a story told by Israelis about Ariel Sharon that is, like most such stories, partly apocryphal and also partly true.
In April 2002, after over a year of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilian centers and in the aftermath of an especially deadly attack against a Passover Seder ceremony, then-prime minister Sharon began preparations for a military effort to suppress Palestinian terror groups. He gathered together — so the story goes — key generals of the IDF General Staff and demanded a plan of action to end the terror attacks once and for all.
But it was not possible to defeat terror emanating from hostile civilian populations, replied the generals.
That’s all well and good, and maybe it is truly impossible, Sharon is said to have replied, but your job is to find a way to do it nonetheless.
The IDF then went on to do precisely that — taking Palestinian population centers, rebuilding intelligence networks dismantled when Israel ceded security control of Palestinian population centers to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, and quickly driving the Palestinian terror organizations’ operational capacity to near zero.
The tale, told to this reporter for the first time years ago and often since, captures the consensus Israeli view of Ariel Sharon: the daring defender, the unpredictable battlefield commander, the devoted son of a threatened people. He embodied the boldness, innovation, stubbornness and brilliance that Israelis like to think characterize the quintessential “Israeli.”
Among Israeli politicians, such talk is what passes for a discussion of Sharon’s “legacy” in the wake of his death on Saturday at the age of 85.
“Ariel Sharon. A strong-willed soldier. A gifted general. Fought with heroism in Israel’s wars and contributed greatly to Israel’s security.” That, in full, was Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir’s eulogy on Saturday night.
“Sharon will be remembered first of all as a great commander who led many important battles,” said Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement (link in Hebrew) hailed Sharon as “first and foremost, a brave warrior and great general, among the greatest commanders of the Israel Defense Forces.”
The comments are repetitive and uninformative, and that’s no accident. When it comes to determining the legacy of a leader, few leaders offer up a more complex, contradictory record than Ariel Sharon.
Sharon was ostensibly a darling of the hawkish, annexationist right. In the 1950s he led the famously fearsome Unit 101 on revenge operations meant to terrorize Fedayeen terrorists across the eastern borders. In the Sinai in 1967 and across the Suez in 1973, in his charge to Beirut in 1982 and his decisive incursions into Palestinian cities to disrupt and dismantle terror operations in 2002 — there is scarcely a generation of Israelis who are not personally tied to one or another of Sharon’s military exploits. And there is scarcely a leader in Israel who can take as much credit as he for establishing and expanding the Jewish settlement of territories taken in 1967.
Yet Sharon is also a darling of parts of the left, having delivered in his 2005 withdrawal from Gaza the first meaningful setback to the settlement movement since 1967. Israelis will never know what might have happened had he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office after the 2006 elections (he suffered a stroke in January 2006 and remained comatose until his death), but his successor Ehud Olmert won that election promising a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, a policy Olmert said Sharon would have pursued.
Indeed, in late 2005 had Sharon announced, after three long decades in the Likud, that he was leaving the party to form a new, centrist alternative to his old political home: the Kadima party.
Many Israeli politicians, especially right-wing MKs such as Nissan Slomiansky, offered messages on Saturday that reflected that confused legacy. After praising Sharon’s right-wing credentials profusely, Slomiansky added, “The great revolution that occurred, to my regret, in his positions has led to great harm to the people and land of Israel. Yet despite his deeds as prime minister, as a military and civil leader of the Jewish people his merits are still many, and these we must remember.”
Yet while the ideologically consistent used the opportunity of his death to criticize him, many missed the key point about Sharon’s life: how little concerned he was with ideological or intellectual coherence. His greatest strength, evident throughout his writing, was his overriding pragmatism.
Sharon deployed settlers in much the same way that he deployed armies, with careful attention to locations of strategic value. “Settlements are not an impediment to peace,” he famously said, “they are an impediment to war.”
Then, when he concluded that the costs of some of the settlements outweighed their strategic value, he unceremoniously took them down, shocking not only Israel’s critics who believed such withdrawals were beyond the capacity of Israeli politics, but even many Israelis.
He was a peacemaker who destabilized his opponents through unilateral withdrawal, a shrewd war-maker who believed – and proved – that a properly deployed army could solve far more problems than modern politicians seem to believe.
Sharon achieved these things without any ideological grand narratives or political visions to which he felt obligated. Every problem was a tactical problem, and nothing hindered his pursuit of a solution except the straightforward question, “Will it work?”
The result is a record with no unifying thread except one: a single-minded, dogged, ultimately pragmatic commitment to Israel’s security.
The right often rails against Sharon’s about-face on settlement withdrawal; the left protests his previous record as a ruthless military leader. But the huge crowds of Israelis expressing affection for the departed former premier this weekend loved him precisely for the sense that the country needs to focus on the practical problems of safety and economic recovery, not on seemingly worn-out and detached ideologies.
For a confused political generation, Sharon served as an anchor, suggesting that while peace tarried and politicians no longer had clear visions for the future, leaders could still deliver on their most fundamental obligation: security.