An Edah Editorial
By Prof. Gil Troy
Ariel Sharon: Beyond the Image
Many who spent years loathing Ariel Sharon were surprised to
find themselves rooting, and even praying, for Israel's Prime Minister as he
struggled for his life following a massive stroke. This concern transcends the
humanizing effects of celebrities' illnesses --although it offers a sobering
reminder of our own mortality when powerful world leaders succumb to the same
pedestrian ailments that strike us commoners. Rather, the surprising waves of
sympathy for the Israeli whom friends and foes called the "Bulldozer,"
mocks the black-and-white stick-figure coverage we endure about politics. Real
people are always evolving and often contradictory; they are more complex than
their one-dimensional images suggest.
Five years ago, Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister as a polarizing,
seemingly radical figure. His emergence as a centrist reflects Sharon's shift
from being the settlers' champion to becoming the unilateralist realist who
changed political facts on the ground, building a fence to protect Israelis
from terror while challenging Palestinians to govern themselves in Gaza.
Like the Biblical leader Joshua who saw "milk and honey"
when his fellow spies were terrified of giants, Sharon taught Israelis - and
the world - that democracies could defend themselves against terror, that the
Palestinian turn from negotiation toward terror disproved the delusions of Israel's
left and right, demonstrating that while pandering to Palestinian terrorists
would not bring peace, Palestinian aspirations could not be ignored either.
If Israel's peaceful unilateral disengagement from Gaza was
not as momentous as President Richard Nixon's visit to China, Ariel Sharon at
least succeeded in confounding his critics. Sharon never explained why he reversed
course so abruptly from being the patron saint of Israel's post-1967 settlement
movement, and whether he planned more withdrawals. But, gradually, many Israelis
and non-Israelis began viewing Sharon as a key to solving the Middle East's
problems, not a monstrous warmonger.
More and more people outside of Israel learned what Israelis
had long known, Sharon was larger than life - echoing God's promise to Joshua
"I will magnify you in the eyes of all Israel." Just as his troops
followed him lovingly into battle, most Israelis trusted "Arik" to
lead them out of the wilderness Palestinian terror sowed toward a more peaceful
It is fitting that Ariel Sharon's half-century in history's
limelight would end by confusing his enemies. In perhaps his greatest military
move, Sharon plunged into Egyptian territory, surrounding Egypt's Third Army
during the 1973 Yom Kippur War even as the Egyptians held positions they had
just conquered after their surprise attack on Israel's holiest day. Then, and
subsequently, Sharon understood that his plucky little country's security required
tactics that violated the conventional wisdom then redefined it. And if these
tactics stunned opponents, even better.
Sharon's reputation suffered most from another incursion on
enemy turf, this time during the 1982 Lebanon War. Vengeful Lebanese Christian
Phalangist militia-men massacred approximately 700 Palestinian refugees in the
Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Sharon, Israel's defense minister and the architect
of the Lebanese incursion, failed to stop the slaughter. For that failure to
exercise moral leadership, Israel's Kahan Commission investigating the massacre
suggested he lose the defense ministry. Israelis were proud that their moral
standards were so exacting they punished a leader responsible for failing to
stop a reprehensible atrocity. Nevertheless, critics throughout the world blamed
Sharon for having orchestrated the crime, when he did not.
More recently, post-disengagement, Sharon flummoxed his own
internal party critics by abandoning the Likud party. The future of the relative
calm Sharon succeeded in imposing after much bloodshed on both sides - is in
doubt, feeding much anxiety.
If, as Sharon exits the public stage, his career teaches us
to appreciate unconventional tactics, subtleties, complexities, and the need
for pragmatism not millennialism, he will have performed a great service. There
will be no peace until partisans on all sides can acknowledge the situation
as multidimensional, multichromatic and dynamic, realizing that sometimes generals
can become statesmen, warmakers can become peacemakers, and longstanding assumptions
can become discarded notions.
Ultimately, Sharon's zigs and zags root him in the non-messianic
pragmatism that has been the key to Zionism's success. Palestinians remain addicted
to fulfilling their maximalist and unrealistic fantasies. Zionists have succeeded
by solving problems not seeking messianic justice, even after the monstrous
Nazi injustice. That search for solutions, that ability to adjust ideology to
fit new perceptions of reality, led David Ben-Gurion to accept the 1947 UN partition,
led Yitzhak Rabin into the Oslo gamble, and led Ariel Sharon to re-enter West
Bank cities in 2002, build a security fence and leave Gaza.
Ariel Sharon lacked Bill Clinton's charisma, Ronald Reagan's
silver tongue, Menachem Begin's principles, or Theodor Herzl's dreams. Toward
the end of the Book of Samuel, King David, another imperfect hero compelled
to fight from his youth to his old age, thanked God for "enlarge[ning]
my steps under me and my feet have not slipped." All of us who seek peace
and abhor terror should be similarly grateful for Ariel Sharon's majestic, far-reaching
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and
the author, most recently, of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented