Ariel Sharon’s long, highly decorated and celebrated life in Israel’s military and political spheres is a rich source of material for constructing a meaningful remembrance. The complexity of his life and the different roles he played in service of the state of Israel has been on display since the general and former premier died Jan. 11 — in newspaper columns and articles, press releases and in the voices of world leaders who gathered in Jerusalem Monday for a state memorial ceremony.
Sharon was a man about whom it was impossible not to have an opinion, and usually a strong one. From his military service in the 1948 War of Independence through his tenure as prime minister in 2006, when he was incapacitated by a stroke, Sharon did things forcefully, in a big way, without apology. He became known as the “Bulldozer,” and historians will debate for some time which of his controversial actions were at the bidding of his military and political superiors and how much were of his own volition.
If Sharon did not create Israel’s right wing, he was certainly its shepherd. In 1973, as virtually his first act in politics, Sharon brought together a bloc of rightward-leaning parties to form the Likud, under Menachem Begin, who four years later rode to election victory and became the first non-Labor prime minister in Israel’s history. As agriculture minister in Begin’s government, Sharon was seen as the patron of the Gush Emunim settler movement.
But decades later, Sharon was the only prime minister to dismantle settlements — in Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005. He also took charge of the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in 1979, as Israel was preparing to leave under the terms of its peace treaty with Egypt. For Sharon, settlements were important, but not sacred.
On the simplest level, both left and right each have their own narrative regarding the arc, and twists and turns of Sharon’s life. For the left, Sharon was the warrior whose brutality reached its height at Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, when he allowed the Israeli army in Lebanon to stand by as Christian militiamen slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians. Yet the hardline Sharon, after he became prime minister, realized that it was not enough to pound the enemy into acquiescence. He concluded that Israel could not indefinitely rule over the Palestinians and needed to begin withdrawing from territories.
For the right, which cheered Sharon through his years of settlement building and fighting the PLO, and who hailed him as Arik melech yisrael — “Arik, King of Israel” — the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was an unforgivable betrayal of Greater Israel and the Jews who went to settle the territories. It is disturbing that some members of this camp proclaimed that Sharon’s stroke the following year was a punishment from God.
There’s no telling what Sharon would have done next if he had not fallen ill. His stroke occurred not very long after his founding of the Kadima Party, and at a time when he seemed poised to move even more forcefully to a final, peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. In any case, eight years have passed since then and others have taken the reins of command. Now there is no Ariel Sharon in Israel. That means there is no single leader whom people believe is the only one with the authority and the political strength to push through dramatic change.
At a time of political and cultural deadlock in the Middle East, when Israel continues to face a host of existential challenges, we think back fondly on the leadership of Ariel Sharon, who showed a remarkable ability to capture a mandate and cut through the infighting to do what was right for the country. We will miss him.