People around the world have passed judgment on the life of Israel’s most controversial leader that runs the gamut from utter and deep admiration for his uncompromising devotion to Israel’s security and wellbeing while others, especially the Palestinians, reviled him for being cruel, morally corrupt and a war criminal.
I doubt that history will render a judgment that supports with no reservation one or the other characterization of this unique individual. As for me, he was a leader’s leader who demonstrated the vision, courage and commitment to what he believed in–qualities that are sorely lacking on the global stage today and especially in the Middle East.
Yes, he had on a number of occasions demonstrated poor judgment that caused great grief and losses to many Palestinians. I can say, however, with no reservation that he had no malice in his heart but that his overzealousness obscured, at times, his better judgment about what was right or what was wrong.
Perhaps the best way to survey Sharon’s life is to look as his unique characteristics and the imprint he left behind which will have a lasting impact for generations to come.
He was a hardcore ideologue who believed in Israel’s right to occupy all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. But when he concluded in 2004 that the only way to preserve Israel as a democracy and its Jewish national identity, he acted and withdrew all Israeli settlers and military personnel from Gaza with the intention of withdrawing from much of the West Bank.
Sharon exuded unmatched leadership qualities both as a soldier and as a political leader. When he was required to fight as a soldier he stood in the forefront and was never fazed by any danger. As a politician, he never hesitated to make the most sensitive political decisions to change course and seek a two-state solution, overriding the objections of many in his cabinet including Netanyahu who served as his finance minister at the time.
Sharon’s courage was exemplary in leading his troops or his government–he always stuck to the motto that a commitment to achieve anything requires corresponding courage, especially when it appears that all odds are against you. Once he decided to bulldoze ahead with his plan to evacuate Gaza, he never feared the threats to his life from extremist settlers, especially when the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was still fresh in the mind of the Israelis.
Sharon, who suffered several failures, understood that true statesmanship is not only a product of successive successes but also the lessons learned from failures. Realizing that occupation is not sustainable, Sharon had little compunctions to propose a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Brilliant military strategist:
Although Sharon was the soldier’s soldier and demonstrated from his early career that he was a superb military strategist, he will be remembered in the military annals as one of the greatest. In the 1973 war against Egypt, after Israel’s initial retreat he commanded 27,000 Israelis in a drive across Egypt’s Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of the war, and was poised to crush the Egyptian Third Army had he not been prevented by the US.
Sharon’s deep convictions about what was best for Israel made him one of the most relentless leaders who never succumbed to failure or circumstances. He was a warrior both in his military and political life. He pursued his goals with zeal by chasing terrorists across enemy lines or changing political course when his party did not go along with him to seek rapprochement with the Palestinians.
Sharon was an uncompromising ideologue; not only did he believe that the Jews have every right to reside in their ancient homeland, he also openly advocated grabbing every inch of Palestinian land to realize the Jews’ historic right. He came to be known as the father of the settlements and the architect of building a barrier of fences and walls to separate Israel from the West Bank.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, who served as Sharon’s deputy, put it best when he said“He [Sharon] was a smart and realistic person and understood well that there is a limit in our ability to conduct wars.” Sharon believed that a practical, realizable solution must be found regardless of Israel’s military prowess.
Sharon’s many setbacks did not sway him from his ultimate goal to serve his beloved country in any way possible. After his setback in the 1982 Lebanon War he began a process of self-rehabilitation, serving in parliament and in a number of Cabinet posts while endearing himself in the eyes of the settlers. He ended this period by achieving a landslide victory in 2001, which bestowed on him the premiership.
In many ways, Sharon was dismissive of his opponents, especially when he was convinced of the correctness of his moves. In late 2003, he unveiled his “unilateral disengagement” regardless of what his political opponents had to say and without prior consultation and an agreement with the Palestinians.
Probably the best way to describe Sharon’s excessive confidence and his boldness is his engineering of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 while portraying it as a limited campaign to rout Palestinian terrorists infiltrating from Southern Lebanon. Sharon reached the outskirts of Beirut, which was seen by many Israelis as a bold and daring military move that could lead, as Sharon envisioned, to the establishment of a pro-Israel regime in Lebanon. This military adventure, however, ended up in a major debacle which kept Israeli forces in Lebanon for 18 years and most likely precipitated the rise of Hezbollah.
Sharon’s defiance may be described by his provocative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, the 3rd holiest site in Islam. This incident was followed by Palestinian riots which escalated into a full-fledged uprising. Whether or not the Palestinians had planned this in advance, the visit provided the impetus. This second Intifada (uprising) claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, and laid much of the West Bank in ruin.
Sharon’s death in my view leaves a legacy that the Israelis and the Palestinians would do well to remember: Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is a fact of life, and time and circumstances will change little other than to inflict more pain and suffering, and further deepen the hatred and animosity that will continue to poison one generation after another.
Sharon came to this realization and made a historic turn. He had the vision, courage, leadership and wisdom to act.
It is a historic irony that the two leaders who reached out to the Palestinians, Rabin and Sharon, who both took concrete steps for peace, were struck down before they could accomplish their goal. A true leader must fear no death, because the future of their people and their destiny demands and deserves the highest sacrifices.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW ANDTHE ECONOMIST • WINNER OF THE NATAN BOOK AWARD • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
An authoritative and deeply personal narrative history of the State of Israel, by one of the most influential journalists writing about the Middle East today
Not since Thomas L. Friedman’s groundbreaking From Beirut to Jerusalem has a book captured the essence and the beating heart of the Middle East as keenly and dynamically as My Promised Land. Facing unprecedented internal and external pressures, Israel today is at a moment of existential crisis. Ari Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family’s story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.
We meet Shavit’s great-grandfather, a British Zionist who in 1897 visited the Holy Land on a Thomas Cook tour and understood that it was the way of the future for his people; the idealist young farmer who bought land from his Arab neighbor in the 1920s to grow the Jaffa oranges that would create Palestine’s booming economy; the visionary youth group leader who, in the 1940s, transformed Masada from the neglected ruins of an extremist sect into a powerful symbol for Zionism; the Palestinian who as a young man in 1948 was driven with his family from his home during the expulsion from Lydda; the immigrant orphans of Europe’s Holocaust, who took on menial work and focused on raising their children to become the leaders of the new state; the pragmatic engineer who was instrumental in developing Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s, in the only interview he ever gave; the zealous religious Zionists who started the settler movement in the 1970s; the dot-com entrepreneurs and young men and women behind Tel-Aviv’s booming club scene; and today’s architects of Israel’s foreign policy with Iran, whose nuclear threat looms ominously over the tiny country.
As it examines the complexities and contradictions of the Israeli condition, My Promised Land asks difficult but important questions: Why did Israel come to be? How did it come to be? Can Israel survive? Culminating with an analysis of the issues and threats that Israel is currently facing, My Promised Landuses the defining events of the past to shed new light on the present. The result is a landmark portrait of a small, vibrant country living on the edge, whose identity and presence play a crucial role in today’s global political landscape.
Praise for My Promised Land
“[A] must-read book . . . [My Promised Land] is a real contribution to changing the conversation about Israel and building a healthier relationship with it. Before their next 90-minute phone call, both Barack and Bibi should read it.”—Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times
“The most extraordinary book that I’ve read on [Israel] since Amos Elon’s book called The Israelis,and that was published in the late sixties.”—David Remnick, on Charlie Rose
“Israel is not a proposition, it is a country. Its facticity is one of the great accomplishments of the Jews’ history. . . . It is one of the achievements of Ari Shavit’s important and powerful book to recover [that] feeling.”—Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review