A complex legacy for a more modern Israel.
If the circumstances had not demanded it, I would not have become a soldier, but rather a farmer and agriculturist. My first love was, and remains, manual labor; sowing and harvesting, the pastures, the flock and the cattle.
Sharon was born in 1928 in Kfar Malal, an agricultural village north of Tel Aviv. His love of farming was, indeed, part of his profile as in many ways a quintessential sabra—a native-born son of Zionist pioneers. So was his chutzpah—an audacity composed in large part of a slapdash disdain for rules and constraints.
Sharon had the trait so strongly that he became known as the bulldozer—someone who, when he thought he saw the solution to a problem, plowed straight toward it without regard for protocol and niceties.
Some of Sharon’s moves, both as a general and a statesman, were so dramatic that he in fact made history. That makes his legacy difficult to evaluate, since its entails speculation—speculation about what would have happened if Arik Sharon had not taken his daring, often stunning initiatives.
About his role as a general in the 1967 Six Day War, when he showed tactical genius in winning a key battle in the Sinai Peninsula, the consensus is positive. By now, that is also just about true regarding his even more important role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when—again in the Sinai—he led a fording of the Suez Canal that turned the tide of a war that had started catastrophically for Israel.
At the time, Sharon was accused by superiors of disobeying orders and blamed bitterly for it. But, even if true, it is mostly seen now as a case where a bulldozer was needed, even at the cost—if that was the only way—of violating the chain of command.
As a politician, Sharon’s record gets more controversial and challenging to assess.
In June 1982, with Menachem Begin as prime minister and Sharon as defense minister, Israel launched a war on PLO strongholds in southern Lebanon that had been subjecting northern Israel to rocket fire. It is believed by many to this day—and still a point of dispute—that whereas Begin only wanted to create a PLO-free zone in the south, he was manipulated by Sharon into extending the war to Beirut, with the aim—Sharon’s aim—of installing a pro-Israeli, pro-Western, Maronite Christian government there.
The war succeeded to eject the PLO from Lebanon, but the attempt to improve Lebanon’s political map failed. The vacuum left by the PLO was soon filled by Iran’s proxy, Hizballah, and today—except for the fact that Hizballah is currently tied down by the fighting in Syria—Lebanon is mostly under Iran and Hizballah’s thumb and poses much more of a threat to Israel than in the PLO days.
The overall grade for the war, then, is negative, and Sharon’s role should probably be viewed as a case of bulldozing to the point of recklessness.
Meanwhile Sharon was banished for a while to the political wilderness as an Israeli commission charged him with failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut by a Christian militia, and deposed him as defense minister.
Sharon came back as a cabinet minister in the 1990s, and then, in February 2001, was elected prime minister five months after the outbreak of the brutal terror assault known as the Second Intifada.
At that point, Sharon shelved his bulldozer trait. Despite the hopes of a dazed and, quite literally, bloodied Israeli populace that the legendary Arik would start drubbing the terrorists, Sharon instead deferred to George Bush, who was busy assembling a coalition for the war in Iraq and thought Israeli military action would impede that endeavor.
Under Sharon, then, Israel did little to stop the onslaught until the Park Hotel massacre on Passover night, March 27, 2002, after which—still, at first, with only an amber light from Bush—Sharon ordered the ultimately successful Operation Defensive Shield.
Sharon was reelected in 2003, and then, in December that year, made his last stunning move by announcing his disengagement plan from Gaza and northern Samaria. With Sharon known as “the father of Israeli settlements,” the politician who had done the most to promote them, the plan was considered astounding particularly because it entailed the evacuation of all settlements in Gaza and four in northern Samaria.
The disengagement was carried out in August and September 2005. In December, Sharon suffered a stroke; then, in January 2006, a second stroke from which he never recovered.
More than eight years after Sharon’s last major measure, the disengagement is difficult to assess.
In March 2006, the seriously problematic and unsuitable Ehud Olmert took office as prime minister, and his government allowed Gaza to keep developing as an Iranian-supplied missile base until finally taking less than decisive military action in December 2008. A reasonable speculation is that Sharon, had he been able to continue as prime minister, would have taken strong and deterrent military action sooner, and the disengagement might look better today.
Israelis, these days, do not miss administering the affairs of over a million Muslims in Gaza and hope not to have to do it again. Since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, the strip has been a good deal quieter and also under heavy pressure from Egypt. On the other hand, in the last few weeks terror from Gaza has again picked up, and on Monday two rockets were fired at Israel soon after Sharon’s funeral.
About the disengagement, then, the longer term will tell whether Israel can successfully contain Gaza without having to reconquer it.
Ariel Sharon was a complex, vivid and, in the degree of his chutzpah, unique figure. Today’s Israel, while still retaining some of the sabra bravado as, apparently, a permanent part of its character, is a more orderly, modernized, conventional country than the one Sharon grew up in. Overall, it is a change for the better. A bulldozing style is not suited to a sophisticated democracy, and it is hard to imagine another Arik swaggering his way to the top of the Israeli power structure.
On the other hand, there is sometimes a place for defiance and daring. For Netanyahu, largely toeing the line from Washington, embroiled in a ludicrous U.S.-orchestrated “peace process” while Iran plays the U.S. and its allies for fools, mixing a little Arik into the pot is more than worth considering.
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