As deceased prime minister Ariel Sharon was being lowered into the ground in his final resting place, my Facebook feed filled up with competing superlatives: war hero, war criminal, bulldozer, hawk, bear, superpower, butcher, man of steel. One thing, however, that cannot be contested was Sharon’s unparalleled aptitude in decision making. There is perhaps no other Israeli leader – either on the battleground or in cabinet – that did whatever it took to bend reality according to his will. Throughout his career, Sharon made decisions that changed the course of Israel’s history and that, more than once, caused the country to rip apart. It was this trait that set Sharon apart from other leaders yet it was also his tragic flaw. The man once lauded as the “Lion of God” ultimately met his demise after he started believing he could actually play God.
In his various ministerial roles, Sharon threw his not-yet considerable weight behind the settlement movement. He did everything in his power – including plenty of legal shortcuts – to populate the settlements in the shortest amount of time since, in his words, “Nothing is more important.” 30 years later, Sharon mercilessly pulled those same people out of the homes he had built them. Sharon giveth and Sharon taketh away.
Yet Sharon’s Icarus-esque aspirations didn’t come from nowhere.
In 1973, as head of the Southern Command, Sharon earned the “Lion” moniker after he successfully turned the tide of the Yom Kippur war in Israel’s favour. In what was to be Israel’s most daring – albeit unsanctioned – attempt to change the facts on the ground, Sharon cut across the Suez lines with 200 tanks and 5,000 soldiers, effectively isolating the Egyptian army from the Sinai Peninsula and posing a real threat to Cairo, not 100 miles away. In one fell swoop, Israel moved from defence to offence. And the plan worked.
Sharon openly defied orders but that didn’t stop him from rising in the ranks. By 1981 he was an integral part of the ruling circle that made the decision to halt Iraq’s nuclear aspirations by bombing Osirak – something that Sharon himself said was “the most difficult decision faced by government during all the years of the state’s existence.” So despite then-prime minister Menachem Begin’s mistrust of the plucky war hero, just two months later Sharon was appointed the post of Defence Minister.
Still giddy from his success opposite the Egyptians, Sharon led Israel into what is now viewed as Israel’s most futile war. It was the war that exposed Sharon for what he really was – human. There was no price too great for Sharon in his quest to once again, change the facts on the ground, and what began as a calculated game of chess turned into a reckless hand of poker. The jackpot was getting the Maronite Christians – ostensibly allies of Israel – into power. At first, it seemed that Sharon succeeded. Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Phalange party, was elected as president in August of 1982. But despite Sharon’s swelling omnipotence, even he could not predict that Gemayel would be assassinated less than a month later, and much less could he predict the outcome of the retaliation for Gemayel’s death in which Phalangists massacred scores of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Neither did Sharon predict that the next hand to be dealt would be the birth of the terrorist militia Hezbollah.
In 2000, the aging but still unstoppable Sharon ascended Temple Mount – an act which Palestinians view as the trigger for the Second Intifada. Once again, the man who started it would be given the mantle of ending it and in March of 2001, Sharon was elected prime minister. Uri Dan, the late journalist and Sharon confidant, asserted that “Arafat’s war made Sharon prime minister.” Yet many would argue that it was Sharon who moved the first pawn in Arafat’s war by climbing the hill in the first place. Five years later and Sharon’s disengagement plan came into fruition, at once turning Sharon into the most hated man in Israel and a darling at the UN.
Today, Israel is once again split – this time between mourning the former prime minister’s death and welcoming it. Those who were pulled from their homes feel the sting most acutely. Betrayed by their foremost supporter, many of the former Gaza settlers are still awaiting Sharon’s promise of compensation and employment. The Arab world too, is celebrating the death of the man they call the “Butcher of Beirut.” Yet curiously, for some Arabs, Sharon was and is a symbol of strength. A Palestinian friend expressed it thus: “He may have been bad for us, but at least he was no coward. He was a worthy opponent of Arafat.”
Indeed, as a man who never passed the buck of onus onto others, coward he was not. But his weakness lay in the fact that he did not recognize the point at which the ends ceased to justify the means. As a man who lost two wives and a young son in tragic circumstances, he should’ve learned the lesson that he is not in control early on. But perhaps it was precisely because of his trauma-riddled personal life that Sharon operated under the illusion that at least in the public sphere, he could control it all. Behind all his successes and failures, faulty logic played a significant role. It was a precarious logic that relied too heavily on events lining up just the way he wanted – without thought to extenuating circumstances. He calculated his moves the way Homeland’s scriptwriters construct the hit TV show’s plot – with far too much left to chance. Just as he didn’t factor in Gemayel’s assassination, decades later he failed to factor in his own coma.
In the end, his plans for Israel following the withdrawal from Gaza went with him to his grave. No one – not even his closest advisors – knew exactly what Sharon’s vision was. In this way at least, perhaps Sharon merits his deification; after all, he too worked in mysterious ways.