Some 10 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be eulogized around the world as a man of peace. Until 10 years ago, his name was mainly associated with war.
A superb warlord, he was a bold and resolute man. The founding father of the Israeli settlements in the territories, he was a staunch hawk who did not see the Arabs as peace partners. He continually advocated that Israel should live by the sword and build up Jewish strength. Israel, he would always say, is the only place in the world where Jews can defend themselves by themselves. That was the quintessential Sharon.
Then the big, historical change came about, turning him into a figure that all world leaders scrambled to hear his UN General Assembly address in September 2005, some two months after Israel had carried out the disengagement in which 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in northern Samaria were destroyed, thereby ending the occupation in Gaza and making a “down payment” for possibly a similar move in the West Bank. Sharon had just completed one of the most astounding about-faces in Israeli politics. And he did it in the way that only he could: with full force, without any hesitation, taking no prisoners and not looking back. From being a warlord, he had turned into a prophet of peace.
His underlying narrative hadn’t changed that much. Israel, he said, continues to be the only place where Jews can defend themselves by themselves, but it cannot do it while continuing to control another people. Sharon had reached the conclusion that the burden of the occupation had outweighed its benefits. He realized that this could not go on. As soon as it dawned on him, he knew exactly what had to be done. Because he was the one who built the settlements, he decided that he would also be the one to destroy them, or at least start that process. Nobody but him could have risen to the occasion and carried out this terrible task.
Let’s go back to the starting point. Two outstanding Israelis from Israel’s founding generation survived public life in Israel. The first is the incumbent nonagenarian president of the state of Israel, Shimon Peres. The second is Sharon, who eight years ago to the day slipped into partial coma. Together, Peres and Sharon epitomize what being an Israeli is all about. It is wholly engrained in them. Sharon embodies the native, freewheeling, wild, suspicious and confident sabra. Peres, a Polish-born emigrant who came from the inferno of Europe, symbolized the skeptic, the dreamer and the philosopher who carries some traits of a diaspora Jew — the one who first frets over what others will say and only then thinks about the future. He was the opposite of Sharon, who first wanted to do things and only then contend with the circumstances and the consequences.
Sharon is among the last warriors of the 1948 War of Independence. His life and career are intertwined with the life of the State of Israel. Similarly to Israel’s history, his life was etched in blood, fire and smoke. Much like Israel, he swayed, zigzagged and spun between two poles, switching sides and directions. His life’s most seminal event was the battle in Latrun during the 1948 War of Independence. A young platoon commander, he was caught in an inferno. Until the last day of his lucidity, he would re-live the day when he crawled with another disemboweled soldier, trying to keep him alive amid a blazing thorn field and burnt bodies, in a desperate attempt to rejoin the retreating Israeli forces. Together with other soldiers, Sharon had been left there to his own devices, feeling the bitter taste of defeat and the pungent smell of death.
Those sights would never leave him. It is there where he fostered his unremitting insistence on retrieving Israeli soldiers, Israeli civilians or bodies from the enemy whatever the circumstances. Sharon regarded the Arabs to be an inferior enemy. He had no regard for their courage. He was unimpressed with their deep thinking, and he detested their brutality. The sights of bodies of tortured Israeli soldiers who had been abused in a variety of ways (including sexually) would never leave him. That’s where his personality and traits were formed — in the battlefields from which the Jewish state emerged. This is the state which he would accompany through thick and thin during its first 58 years. That is until Jan. 4, 2006, when — at 77 — he suffered his second and most severe stroke from which he never recovered.
Born in Kfar Malal, a small cooperative moshav (village) in the Sharon region, he hailed from a small, outcast family, which was ostracized by most of the residents. His moshav was surrounded by Arab villages well before the establishment of the Jewish state. His mother, Vera Scheinerman, used to sleep with a big club under her pillow. If an Arab came to harm us, she would handle him all right. Sharon learned to trust no one except himself. He learned to survive a hostile environment and live under siege.
As noted, he fought in the War of Independence, quickly climbing up the ranks of command in the fledgling Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Considered the sponsor of the Reprisal Operations in the 1950s, he set up Israel’s first commando unit — Unit 101. He was said to be a professional troublemaker. The bold raids that he and his soldiers carried out, almost nightly, beyond enemy lines in Jordan, Egypt and Syria to retaliate attacks by the fedayeen (which is what terrorists were called back in the day) against Israeli civilians, were one of the hallmarks of the 1950s and '60s when the tiny Israel remained besieged, under attack and surrounded by five Arab countries poised to destroy it.
Sharon is the founder of the Israeli commando forces, one the architects of the 1956 war and one of the salient heroes of the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel broke through the siege, easily vanquishing Egypt, Syria and Jordan, tripling its size, taking over the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank. Almost overnight, the state had turned from a puny, suspicious and scared creature into a regional empire. It was a sharp transition that left its indelible mark on everyone.
Back then, Sharon was the commander of one of the IDF’s three armored divisions that broke into Sinai, defeating the Egyptian army, stampeding toward the banks of the Suez Canal. He oversaw the two most major breakthrough battles of that war — in Abu-Ageila and Um-Katef. To this day, these two armored battles are the ones that are taught the most in military academies across the world.
Once, as minister of national infrastructures, Sharon was on a visit to Russia. During that visit, his hosts invited him on the spur of the moment to attend a graduation ceremony of Red Army tank cadets that was held not far from where he was visiting. Sharon gladly accepted the invitation. There, to his amazement, he saw an honor parade of more than one hundred tanks with their guns pointing up. He sat down with the cadets who asked him the most detailed questions about the battles he had conducted some 30 years earlier. The Russian cadets had mastered every order he had issued and every platoon maneuver he had made back then in the Sinai battles. This was one of his greatest hours.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was taken by surprise by Egypt and Syria, and was nearly vanquished, Sharon was the hero of the turnaround. He was the one who crossed the Suez Canal. He is the one whose composure influenced the warriors during these turbulent times of helplessness, confusion and blood. Sharon was the only senior official who was not overcome by depression, who did not talk about the “destruction of the Third Temple” and did not engage in defeatism. He applied unremitting pressure on higher echelons to cross the Suez Canal in order to change the outcome of the war. Violating orders, he defied authority and conducted wars of generals that have yet to be resolved. Yet the bottom line is that he crossed the canal and won the war.
Then the bad years came along. Named defense minister, he invaded Lebanon, inflicting on Israel one of its greatest disasters. It ended with a commission of inquiry which recommended that he be impeached in the wake of the massacre perpetrated by Christians against Muslims in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Sharon was not charged with perpetrating the massacre, but with not having been vigilant enough to avert it. He was accused of not having identified the danger and having preferred to close his eyes and let the Arabs kill each other without realizing that he was the responsible adult in the area.
Yet he did not succumb. Israeli politicians never do. Israeli politicians never retire — never. Either you’re impeached, banished or you die on the job. Much like Sharon. When he collapsed, he was serving as prime minister. Incidentally, in Israel, even when you’re impeached, you start carefully planning your comeback.
And Sharon had a glorious comeback, one which was carried out with calculated slowness. He took advantage of the 1908’s and 90’s to build settlements atop every hill in Judea and Samaria. He took a sharp turn to the right, leading the right-wing sector of the Likud Party, trying to defy the leadership but realizing he did not enjoy a broad electoral base. The much dreaded sights of the First Lebanon War and the conclusions of the commission of inquiry hovered like an ominous dark cloud over his head. The Israeli public had neither forgotten nor forgiven. The roads leading to Havat Hashikmim or Sycamores Farm, his huge estate in the south of the country, were dotted with graffiti in the spirit of “to the murderer’s house.” Adapting to the situation, Sharon set his expectations accordingly and continued to stir the pot of the Likud Party’s internal politics.
When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the lethal Hamas suicide bombings throughout Israel, Sharon barely jostled his way into the government. When Netanyahu lost the 1999 elections, Sharon was there standing by his side, poised to become the potential successor. Many how-to political manuals can be written on how he crafted that situation. Taking in the shattered and defeated Likud, still everyone dismissed him as being a serious contender for leadership. By the next elections, Likud members thought, either Bibi (Netanyahu) would bounce back or some of the “young princes” would take over the reins from the aging general.
That didn’t happen. The old general became the prime minister in the midst of the second deadly intifada during which some 1,000 Israelis were butchered by suicide bombers who managed to infiltrate everywhere — cafes, waiting lines for nightclubs, shopping malls, buses and restaurants. The climatic event occurred on the eve of Passover in 2002 when a suicide bomber entered a hotel in Netanya, blowing himself up in the middle of the traditional meal. Dozens of bodies and body parts floated in a large pool of blood on the floor of the dining hall. Israel’s restraint had come to an end. Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, built the separation fence and together with the IDF and Shin Bet eradicated terrorism.
There was one more thing left for him to do. Instead of radicalizing, he started mellowing. All of a sudden, his tone changed. It started in closed forums and continued to public appearances. Sharon started talking about the need to end the occupation and the need to make painful, sundering yet necessary concessions. Left-wing rhetoric started sneaking into his speeches. Initially, nobody could believe this. It has got to be one of his machinations, political pundits opined. He’s toying with us; he’s looking to buy time.
But Sharon was neither toying nor buying time. It’s possible that he already knew that he had no time to buy. The sand in his hourglass was running fast. An Israeli prime minister sees the situation at its best resolution. Formerly a pariah in the United States, Sharon became a White House darling. He fostered strategic and personal ties with President George W. Bush, surrendering to the world’s love and his standing in Washington. He came to the realization that Israel’s strategic strength did not hinge on the size of its territory but on its legitimacy, internal cohesion, the US and Europe.
When this dawned on him, he moved to the execution stage, announcing the disengagement. Israel was hurled into a total state of shock. Sharon, the founder of the settlements, had come to stamp them out. The thousands of residents in the Gush Qatif settlement block in the Gaza Strip thought until the very end that this would not come to pass. They did not pack their household goods. They did not prepare. Immersing in prayers and tears, they hoped it was all one big mistake and that Sharon would eventually regret this, come to his senses, have second thoughts and that some miracle would happen. That something would happen.
But nothing good happened to them. Sharon had contemplated four disengagement options. Gen. Giora Eiland, who was then director of the National Security Council, also prepared a “large” option in the setting of which Israel would have evicted not only the entire Gaza Strip but also a large number of settlements in Samaria. In the end, Sharon opted for a more modest course of action. Only four settlements in Samaria were eventually evicted. This was construed to be the promo of what was to follow when the “kingdom” would control the subjects and turn the tables, even in those parts of the land where the Jewish people was born.
The disengagement was a watershed national event in Israel. There was talk about a civil war, which ultimately did not break out. There was immense protest on the ground. People shed many tears and immersed in prayers, but in the end the Israeli police and the military were able to contain the event without real violence or casualties. Sharon, the human bulldozer, had his way. He proved that settlements could be dismantled. He showed that the settlement enterprise was not irreversible. With his willpower and resolve, he overcame a powerful public that relied on fervent religious beliefs and devotion.
Shortly after his victory and after seceding from the Likud Party, he founded the Kadima Party. As he galloped toward what seemed to be a landslide victory, he collapsed. Eight years to the day, Jan. 4, have passed since. Reality has changed. In today’s Israel, there is no leader that can uproot as much as a single house in an illegal outpost in the territories. The State of the Settlers in Judea and Samaria is thriving, gathering influence and strength at the expense of the State of Israel. In today’s Israel, there is no leader who can make such a decision and see it through with vigor and resolve. Prime Minister Netanyahu has neither an iota, nor a smidgen or a modicum of the internal strength that the aging Sharon used to have.
Tormented and vacillating, Israel is rived between its different identities. Sharon’s many lovers and admirers, as well as quite a few of his detractors, are unified in the opinion that we will never see such a leader here anymore. Most Israelis will weep for Sharon from the bottom of their heart. A handful will sigh in relief as he is laid to rest.
Until 10 years ago, it would have been exactly the opposite. Those who will weep, would have rejoiced, and vice versa.
That’s one of the things that can only happen in Israel.