Ariel Sharon, Bulldozer of Israel

Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon touring Beaufort fortress after its capture in June 1982 (IDF Archive)

Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon touring Beaufort fortress after its capture in June 1982 (IDF Archive)

I come to bury Ariel Sharon, not exclusively to praise him, though it feels almost obligatory to poetically eulogize Israel’s now-deceased 11th prime minister. Eight years have passed since a massive stroke left him comatose, and no doubt many of the obits one can read in the dozens of major newspapers around the world were in fact written in 2006, so I hope to use a bit of hindsight while remembering one of Israel’s greatest figures.

I made aliyah (emigrated to Israel) while Sharon was still Israel’s leading man. It was immediately after the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, one of the most divisive political periods in the country’s brief history. The scars were still visible; sun-bleached orange and blue ribbons adorned every vehicle.

Some believed that the maneuver would cost Sharon his life – after all, his decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza resulted in the forced evacuation of Jewish settlers from their homes, the same homes that Sharon grandfathered in as Minister of Agriculture between 1977 and 1981. For members of the Gush Emunim movement, Sharon’s act of “betrayal” has not been forgotten.

But those familiar with Sharon’s political career were not surprised, for there was no ideology, no friendship, no cause that he wasn’t unwilling to abandon for the sake of his ever-evolving vision for Israel.

It was this unbridled sense of opportunism that transformed Sharon into a brilliant military tactician, arguably the best in Israel’s history and perhaps the best the world has seen since World War II. The country owes him a great debt for his aggressive maneuvers in the Sinai Peninsula during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

However his “do or die” strategies, so befitting the unforgiving desert where he rose to international celebrity, proved discordant on the Knesset floor. Appointed as Minister of Defense in 1981, he undermined prime minister and “landsman” Menachem Begin (Sharon’s grandfather and Begin’s father were friends in Poland, and Sharon’s grandmother was Begin’s midwife) at every turn, withholding vital military information at the outset of “Operation Peace for Galilee” and then playing dumb after the Sabra and Shatila massacre became public knowledge. The Kahan Commission, which investigated the events which led to the death of at least eight hundred Palestinian civilians, concluded that,

“It is impossible to justify the Defense Minister’s disregard of the danger of a massacre . . . His involvement in the war was deep, and the connection with the Phalangists [, Lebanon’s Christian militia,] was under his constant care. If in fact the Defense Minister, when he decided that the Phalangists would enter the camps without the IDF taking part in the operation, did not think that the decision could bring about the disaster that in fact occurred, the only possible explanation is that he disregarded any apprehensions about what was to be expected . . .”

The commission found Sharon personally responsible.

Sharon’s legacy does not lack tarnish and some of his demons continue to harass Israel today. Consider that Hezbollah was born out of  Israel’s failed war in Lebanon, and Hamas’ control of Gaza was a direct result of the disengagement. But regardless of what we may think of Ariel Sharon, the reality is that he deserves a seat amongst the pantheon of Israel’s founding fathers. He was not an institution-building architect like Ben-Gurion, nor was he a populist like Begin, or military man of peace like Yitzhak Rabin.

No, Sharon was a bulldozer. He embodied the grand successes of the Zionist movement, and encouraged the rebirth of the pioneering spirit represented by settler communities in the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai (not to mention the Galilee and Negev), only to later execute its painful termination. In countless campaigns he was Israel’s defender, a modern Judah Maccabee. But his overconfidence also led the country into the morass of Lebanon. Like a supergiant star after its collapse, he left an empty black void behind him and no shortage of questions: What were his motivations for disengaging from Gaza? Did he have similar plans for the West Bank? How would he have handled the Second Lebanon War? Who was meant to be his political successor?

These questions will likely never be answered, and that is fitting because Sharon answered to no one. He epitomized the sabra spirit: unapologetic, prickly and defensive with a sweet inside. That is how he led a nation, at times destructively, through decades of polarizing challenges. He may not be missed by all, but his impact on the modern State of Israel will not soon be rivaled.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel