If Ariel Sharon had died immediately after he suffered a massive stroke in January of 2006, the reactions to his death would have been different from those that ultimately followed his passing on January 11, 2014. For one thing, he would have died as a sitting prime minister, so his funeral would have been better attended. Not that a state funeral attended by official dignitaries from 20 countries — including Vice President Joseph Biden, who headed the US delegation — is a bad turnout for someone who hadn’t been able to speak, much less exert political influence, for eight years. The foreign representation is particularly impressive when you take into account the short time frame. Sharon died on Shabbat and was buried the following Monday – a relatively long delay by traditional Jewish standards, but a short interval in the world of diplomatic protocol.
If Sharon had died as a sitting prime minister, it is likely that more – and in many cases higher ranking — official delegations would have attended his funeral. (As far as I can tell, the only foreign head of government in attendance was Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok of the Czech Republic.) In addition, the crowds of the general public would probably have been larger, and the media coverage more extensive.
On the other hand, if Sharon had died as prime minister back in 2006, the media attention would have been unavoidably focused on the short-term political implications of his death. At the time of his stroke, after all, Israel was in the midst of a general election campaign in which Sharon was favored to accomplish what even David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, had been unable to achieve: to defeat his former party and become prime minister at the head of a newly formed party slate. Ben Gurion had attempted that feat in 1965, when he and a group of the Labor Party’s “young Turks” (among whom was Shimon Peres, now Israel’s President) formed Rafi (Reshimat Poalei Yisrael, The Israel Workers List), but he was easily defeated by the Labor Party’s old guard, then led by Levi Eshkol.
Sharon had formed Kadima as a new party in November of 2005, breaking with the Likud Party that he had previously led over his plan for further unilateral withdrawals of Israeli civilians from parts of the West Bank. Sharon’s break with Likud had its origins in the evacuation of Israeli civilians from Gaza the previous August – an evacuation that he successfully carried out despite the opposition of a majority of his own party. Kadima was leading in the polls at the time of Sharon’s stroke, but there was considerable doubt as to whether his successor, Ehud Olmert could lead Kadima to victory. Even if Olmert won the election and formed a government, it was unclear whether he would have the political strength to continue implementing Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we now know the answers to the questions that preoccupied us eight years ago. We know that Olmert was able to lead Kadima to victory in the 2006 general election, but his was a significantly narrower victory than had been anticipated when Sharon was heading the slate. We also know that Sharon’s plan for additional unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank was effectively abandoned once the course of events in Gaza made it clear that unilateral withdrawal was not a viable substitute for a negotiated peace. It seems highly unlikely that this outcome would have been different had Sharon still been prime minister.
In light of the eight- year period during which he had been effectively comatose, Sharon’s recent death at the age of 85 left no short-term political effects to dwell on. As a result, those of us who care about Israel’s well being have been free to focus our attention on Sharon’s entire career as both soldier and politician and to ponder what if anything his life tells us about where Israel is today and how it got here.
Sharon, of course, before his stroke, was among the most controversial figures in Israeli life. After his stroke, his detractors, however much they may have snickered privately, mostly let him alone, which is understandable. It hardly seems appropriate to throw political darts at a man no longer able to defend himself while his family struggles with the persistent uncertainty that hangs over those, like Sharon, who take up long-term residence the narrow passageway between life and death.
With Sharon’s death, some of those who had hated him in life took advantage of the one final opportunity to vent their anger. Interestingly, the bitter anger he provoked came from both sides of the political spectrum. Many on the right felt betrayed by the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, while many on the left condemned almost all of his earlier political career. Sharon, after all, before his relatively brief tenure as prime minister, was among the most vociferous supporters of the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. It was, moreover, his much publicized visit to the Temple Mount in September of 2000 that appeared to provoke the second intifada. (It seems likely that Arafat was looking for an excuse and would have found another pretext had Sharon not supplied him with that one.)
Then, of course, there was the 1982 war in Lebanon, which Sharon masterminded as defense minister and which turned out to be a disaster for Israel. In any discussion of that war, Sharon’s detractors typically focus on the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, but Sharon’s responsibility for that atrocity is hardly the open and shut case his detractors depict. That massacre, after all, was committed by Christian Phalangists, not Israelis soldiers, and there was never any evidence that Sharon knew what was happening at the time. The criticism of Sharon for that episode is based on his failure to anticipate how the Phalangists would act if allowed into he camps.
Even without considering Sabra and Shatila, however, Sharon’s role in initiating the war in Lebanon is difficult to defend. Essentially, he hoped to install a friendly Christian government in Lebanon, but when his handpicked Lebanese president Bashir Gemayal, was assassinated – a contingency that can hardly be ignored in that part of the world – he apparently had no backup plan. The result was a quagmire that cost many Israeli lives and accomplished nothing. In the aftermath of the war, Sharon resigned as defense minister, though he remained in the cabinet as a minister without portfolio.
While Sharon the politician was always controversial, Sharon the soldier was widely admired. He fought in all four of Israel’s “good wars,” becoming a platoon commander in the Haganah during Israel’s 1948 war of independence and playing a prominent role in both the 1956 Sinai campaign and the Six Day War in 1967. His greatest military achievement, however, came in 1973, when Sharon aggressively countered Egypt’s initial surprise attack by crossing the Suez Canal and encircling the Egyptian Third Army.
The key to understanding Sharon is to recognize that he was a soldier, by both training and temperament, not a politician. He saw problems from a military perspective and thought of solutions within a military frame of reference. Even when confronting what were clearly civilian issues, his instinct was to approach them like a military commander, determining the best course of action and expecting others to follow orders. He was often impatient with the give and take of the political process, and he never really mastered the art of persuasion.
A good military commander is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He doesn’t lose sight of his objective, but he is constantly revising his plans as new information becomes available. What some on the right saw as Sharon’s betrayal by carrying out the disengagement from Gaza was, in his eyes a commander revising his battle plans while keeping his eye firmly on the objective: protecting the safety and security of the State of Israel. He was often wrong, and he was certainly inconsistent, but I’m convinced that he acted as he did because he sincerely believed it to be in the best interests of his country.
The eight years that elapsed between Sharon’s stroke and his death give us the opportunity to examine Sharon’s life and career as a whole, without getting bogged down in the political minutia of the moment. The need for such a perspective is particularly important in evaluating Sharon because he was more than a military and political leader; he was the virtual embodiment of the secular Zionist ethos of the generation that founded the State of Israel.
Sharon wanted peace but spent most of his life at war. He believed in democracy but was frustrated by the give and take of democratic politics. He was resolutely secular but understood and largely shared religious Zionism’s belief in the sanctity of the Land of Israel. He was a deeply flawed politician, yet he reached the highest political office of the country, persevering in the business of government long after many observers believed that he had been discarded as political road kill. He often fell short of his objectives, but he never gave up.
Ariel Sharon, in short, was both a stereotypical Israeli politician and a unique one. That description may seem contradictory — but then again, so did he. Politics is often described as the art of the possible, but Sharon, like many of Israel’s early leaders, found that limitation too constricting. Creating a sovereign democratic Jewish state in the Land of Israel and protecting that State against the enmity of the entire Arab world often not seem possible, but they did it anyway – and for that all of us who cherish the State of Israel should be forever grateful.