It speaks volumes that Ariel Sharon, whose name rarely if ever appeared in any context without the word “controversy” or “controversial” nearby, was in his own country most often referred to by his few close friends and numerous foes alike by the familial “Arik,” reducing him from the grand lion of “Ariel” to human proportions. Without any doubt this was meant to signify that what he represented, good and bad, both in generous proportions, was inseparable from the existence and history of Israel, a country, which he indefatigably served.
There will be many obituaries that will dwell on who he was and what he did, and so perhaps it might be worth mentioning a few things that he was not and what he did not do. He was not the rightist zealot he was made to appear by the legions of his opponents. His parents came from Belarus and settled in a socialist moshav, where by questioning the official orthodoxy they soon exhibited a contrarian streak, which they passed on in ample quantities to their son. Although his major contribution to Israeli political scene was the cofounding of the Likud party in July 1973, closely before the Yom Kippur War, he was never permanently affiliated with any political party and, as a matter of fact, in the course of his career he pretty much flirted with every political party of note on Israel’s nationalist center-right, liberal center, and socialist center-left, including the Labor Party. He must have been a terrible party member but an inspiring party leader. When his vision seriously conflicted with the program or the policies of the party, he simply left and started a new party, whether it was the Shlomtzion in 1977, the only party on the Israeli political scene at the time with anything resembling “peace” in its name, or Kadimain 2005, a couple of months before his fatal stroke. Altogether, and rather counterintuitively, his political instincts seem to have been individualistic and liberal, almost libertarian rather than collectivist-socialist or collectivist-nationalist, resonating quite well with the modern mentality of an average Israeli.
Second, he was not the military adventurer he was sometimes described as, although he made his share of ill-considered decisions, the Mitla Pass operation of 1956 having been perhaps the most serious. For most part, though, he was a cautious and farseeing military strategist, with a considerable degree of respect for his opponents, most often the Egyptian army (which many of his colleagues had underestimated), and the resulting ability to take into account the most likely rather than the most favorable scenario of any ensuing battle. On his departure as the commander of the Southern Command in the summer of 1973, he left behind a battle plan envisaging a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Suez Canal at least 10 miles back in the eventuality of a forced Egyptian crossing, followed by a swift counterattack, a strategy which could have brought an earlier end to the fighting and saved lives if adhered to. Likewise, the Israeli counter-crossing of the canal with Sharon in the lead, which turned the tide of the Yom Kippur War in Israel’s favor, was not the work of desperate military bravado, but an operation pre-planned by Sharon months before, with forward-deployed equipment for that very purpose.
Third, and most controversially, Sharon was a hard, and on occasion brutal, soldier in the five wars against Arabs in which he played a part. But he was not an Arab hater. As a farmer who worked the land in southern Israel he came into close contact with many Israeli Palestinians and Bedouins and was apparently able to communicate with them in the way that the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem elites could not. He bore personal responsibility for, and lost his ministerial job over, the massacre of the Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps by the Lebanese Phalangist forces during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It was nevertheless a sin of omission in not preventing an atrocity he could have perhaps foreseen, rather a sin of commission. He was not a humanitarian interventionist by any stretch of imagination but neither was he the “butcher of Beirut.” As prime minister he used brutal tactics to suppress the second Palestinian intifada, which led to more than 1,000 Israeli and close to 5,000 Palestinian casualties between 2000 and 2006. But in 2002 he was not responsible for the “massacre of Jenin,” for the simple reason that the massacre—a tendentious label for an 11-day pitched battle in the Palestinian Jenin camp in early April 2002, in which 23 Israeli soldiers and more than 50 Palestinians, mostly combatants, died—never occurred.
Last, and most important, Sharon was not simply a legendary warrior of lore, but also a peacemaker of considerable achievements. His disengagement plan, in which all of Gaza and four settlements in the West Bank were evacuated and transferred to the Palestinians, is to date the only post-Oslo change on the ground in the direction of a two-state solution. Perhaps nobody but the “Bulldozer,” as he was also called, could have done this in the face of the furious resistance of the settlers and the homicidal curses of some of their rabbis.
Maybe Sharon’s greatest achievement, in keeping with his liberal instincts, was not just the implementation of the plan, but the underlying and explicit realization that a people aspiring to freedom cannot permanently deny that freedom to others. Admittedly, the realization, which would have certainly led him to further steps, were it not for the stroke, came late, but he was in the right place and at the right time when it did. His message to the posterity, “What you see from here you don’t see from there,” was an appropriately humble recognition of his own limitations and of the limitations of humanity in general.
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