We are used to our heroes and villains being very clearly defined. For those in the Zionist community, despite his mistakes, Ben-Gurion is considered a hero. Despite his attempted overtures for peace, Arafat, the leader of the Intifada, is considered a villain. Sometimes it depends on our politics. Those on the left say Rabin and Barak were Israel’s greatest statesmen, while those on the right would give that title to Begin and Shamir. It is rare that one person can embody both left and right, can so well serve as a paradigm of the nuance and complexity that is Israeli society. This is Ariel Sharon.
Sharon was early Zionism’s poster-boy, valiantly fighting in the Independence War. He led the Sinai campaign to a swift victory in 1967. He bravely crossed the Suez Canal in 1973, halting the Egyptian invasion. His military legacy, however, is much more complicated. He was accused of acting recklessly during the battle at Mitla Pass during the War of Attrition. Also during that period his unit was accused of orchestrating a massacre in the Palestinian village of Qibya.
As he rose to top positions in the government, he was implicated as being indirectly responsible for allowing the militant Christian Phalangists to massacre Palestinians in Lebanon during the First Lebanon War. Due of these findings Sharon was forced to resign from the government in disgrace. He then became a face for the settler movement and an outspoken opponent to the peace process. However, instead of disappearing into the history books he came back to politics, made it to the top of Likud, and was elected Prime Minister in 2001 over none other than Ehud Barak, the last Prime Minister from the early Zionist, socialist, pro-peace Labor Party.
And then Sharon took what was arguably the most drastic measure in Israeli history. Unilaterally, and not in the context of American sponsored peace talks, he disengaged from Gaza in 2005. Unlike Begin, who withdrew from Sinai, he was not receiving anything in return, not even promises of peace. For various security and ideological reasons he realized Israel cannot remain in the territories. He then single handedly changed the face of Israeli politics by leaving Likud and creating the centrist Kadima party. It is widely believed that had he not suffered a stroke in 2006 that left him in a permanent vegetative state that he would have disengaged from the West Bank as well, creating a Palestinian state.
Some want to just focus on his early days, Sharon the Zionist war hero. Some prefer to focus on Sharon the war criminal. Some see his legacy as totally stained because of the disengagement. Some see him as the ultimate bastion of peace because of that same disengagement. I believe that it is important to embrace all of these aspects of Ariel Sharon.
People don’t always like nuance. We prefer either/or choices. Chocolate or vanilla? Coke or Pepsi? Good guy or bad guy? We cannot play the either/or game with Sharon. On the one hand, we remember his military prowess in saving Israel from the Egyptian army on two occasions. On the other hand Sabra and Shatila is a very real part of his legacy. His reckless actions [“indirectly”] led to the unfortunate deaths of many innocent people. The Disengagement is also a major part of his legacy. He was the first and only Prime Minister to translate talk about peace into concrete action. Even Rabin was not so bold. That being said, Sharon’s earlier politics lead to the strengthening of the settlement movement, a very ideologically driven segment of Israeli society that many see as a major impediment to the peace process.
This only speaks to how great Sharon was. Great people are usually not simple. If someone is so simple minded, than what really makes him or her so great? Many of those who have had the greatest impact on history lived complex and nuanced lives. The world is complex and the value of a great mind is being able to see multiple pieces to the puzzle.
Interestingly, Sharon is not the only nuanced figure to pass away recently. Only a few months ago Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef passed away, also a very complicated figure. His brave Halachik rulings helped countless agunot (married women without writs of divorce or death certificates), converts, and the entire Ethiopian community. He gave the marginalized Sephardic community a figure to be proud of. On the other hand, he was also known for fundamentalist theology, racism, religious intolerance, and political corruption. The world also just buried Nelson Mandela. While his efforts at ending racism are well known, he allied himself with complicated and morally concerning people, including Arafat. Many of his comrades fighting for the end of Apartheid were terrorists and actually killed many innocent people.
Sharon, Yosef, and Mandela all interestingly have a lot in common. They fought for what they believed was right. However, they were not one-tracked in their thinking. They had to take stands that were unpopular. They all believed in peace, but were known for causing a lot of trouble. They all had tremendous impacts on their societies, while being often contradictory in their beliefs and actions.
Sharon’s final move was to create Kadima. The inception of Kadima, a self-described centrist party, probably best represents his legacy. The gung-ho, reckless style of his earlier days, culminating with Sabra and Shatila and the expansion of the settlement movement, had failed. Oslo proved that peace stands a chance. On the other hand, he was the leader who guided Israel during the Second Intifada, the breakdown of the peace process. Likud and Labor were both too simple for him, and simplicity is rarely useful. This is especially true when it comes to Middle East Politics.
In many ways Sharon’s legacy is representative of Israel today. There is a left, there is a right. There is Peace Now and there are the settlers. But Israel is progressing from these old dichotomies. Israel is beginning to realize that their situation is complex and solutions that can be summarized in one simple sentence are probably ineffective. This realization is probably the most important step forward for Israeli society in accepting and implementing the peace process. Though Sharon is gone, Israel is moving Kadima.