By Alon Ben-Meir
Many admire the Israel’s Ariel Sharon for his uncompromising devotion to Israel’s security and wellbeing, while others revile him for cruelty, morally corruption, and war crimes..
I doubt that history will render a judgment that supports either one of these characterizations. As for me, he was a leader’s leader who demonstrated vision, courage, and commitment, qualities that sorely lack on the global stage today, especially in the Middle East.
Yes, on a number of occasions, Sharon demonstrated poor judgment that caused great grief and loss to the Palestinians. However, Sharon had no malice in his heart. At times his overzealousness obscured his better judgment about what was right and what was clearly wrong.
Perhaps the best way to survey Sharon’s life is to examine his unique characteristics, and the imprint he subsequently made on future generations.
Sharon was a hardcore ideologue who believed in Israel’s right to occupy all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Not only did he believe that the Jews had every right to reside in their ancient homeland, he also openly advocated grabbing every inch of Palestinian land to realize the Jews’ historic right. He came to be known as the father of the settlements and the architect of building a barrier of fences and walls to separate Israel from the West Bank.
However, in 2005, he withdrew all Israeli settlers and military personnel from Gaza with the intention of later withdrawing from much of the West Bank. Sharon believed that the withdrawal would preserve Israel’s security, democracy, and Jewish national identity.
Sharon’s deep convictions about what was best for Israel made him one of the most relentless leaders who never succumbed to failure or circumstances. He was a warrior both in his military and political life. He pursued his goals with zeal by chasing terrorists across enemy lines and changing political course.
Sharon exuded unmatched leadership qualities both as a soldier and political leader. As a soldier Sharon showed great courage and commitment to the army. During the course of his military carrier, Sharon played an active role, in many instances helping the Israelis to win. In 1967, during the Six Day War, Sharon demonstrated his leadership as a solider by leading his unit to a victory in the Sinai. As a politician, he never hesitated to make the most sensitive political decisions, even changing course and seeking a two-state solution, despite the objections of many in his cabinet, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time his finance minister.
Sharon’s courage was exemplary, both in leading his troops and his government. He always stuck to the motto that a commitment to achieve anything requires courage, especially when it appears that all odds are against you. Once he decided to move forward with the Gaza withdrawal, he acted accordingly. He did not the threats of extremist settlers dissuade him.
Sharon, who suffered several failures, understood that true statesmanship is not only a product of successive successes but also the lessons learned from past mistakes. Realizing that occupation was not sustainable, Sharon had little compunctions to propose a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. In late 2003, he unveiled his “unilateral disengagement,” ignoring his political opponents and without prior consultation and agreement with the Palestinians.
Brilliant military strategist:
Sharon demonstrated at the start of his career that he was a superb military strategist. He will be remembered in the military annals as one of the greatest. During the 1973 war against Egypt, after Israel’s initial retreat, Sharon commanded 27,000 Israelis in a drive across Egypt’s Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of the war. Sharon was poised to defeat the Egyptian Third Army had he not been prevented by the United States.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, who served as Sharon’s deputy, put it best when he said, “He [Sharon] was a smart and realistic person and understood well that there is a limit in our ability to conduct wars.” Sharon believed that a practical, realizable solution must be found regardless of Israel’s military prowess.
Probably the best way to describe Sharon’s excessive confidence and boldness is in the way he engineered the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Sharon portrayed it as a limited campaign to root out Palestinian terrorists in southern Lebanon. Sharon even reached the outskirts of Beirut, which many Israelis saw as a bold and daring military move that could lead, to the establishment of a pro-Israel regime in Lebanon. This military adventure, however, ended up as a major debacle, which kept Israeli forces in Lebanon for 18 years and most likely precipitated the rise of Hezbollah.
Sharon’s many setbacks did not sway him from his ultimate goal to serve his beloved country. After the 1982 Lebanon War, he began a process of self-rehabilitation, serving in parliament and in a number of Cabinet posts, while endearing himself in the eyes of the settlers. He ended this period by achieving a landslide victory in 2001, which bestowed on him the premiership.
Sharon’s defiance may be described by his provocative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, the 3rd holiest site in Islam. This incident was followed by Palestinian riots, which escalated into a full-fledged uprising. This Second Intifada (uprising) claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, and left much of the West Bank in ruin.
Sharon’s death leaves a legacy that the Israelis and the Palestinians would do well to remember. Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is a fact of life. Time and circumstances will change little other than to inflict more pain and suffering, and further deepen the hatred and animosity that will continue to poison generation after generation. Sharon came to this realization and made a historic turn. He had the vision, courage, leadership, and wisdom to act.
It is a historic irony that the two leaders who reached out to the Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, were struck down before they could accomplish their goals. A true leader,though, must not fear death because the future of his people demands and deserves the highest sacrifices.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. He has a Ph. D. in international relations from Queen's College of the University of Oxford.
[Photos courtesy of Helene C. Stikkel]