An Edah Editorial
By Prof. Gil Troy

Ariel Sharon: Beyond the Image
Gil Troy


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 Promised Land.

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 surefooted pragmatism.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.


Home | Get To Know Us | Increase Your Knowledge | Talk With Like Minded People | Transform Your Community | Stay Informed | Find What You Need | Site Guide