Ariel Sharon: A Man of his Generation
In his eulogy for Ariel Sharon, Vice-President, Joe Biden, called him “a complex man” who “lived in complex times in a very complex neighborhood.” I spoke about then defense minister Sharon from our bimah for the first time on Yom Kippur in 1982 following the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon. His removal from office by Israel’s cabinet in February of 1983 demonstrated that I was no alone in my condemnation of Sharon having been “indirectly responsible” for the killings. Despite this condemnation and humiliation, Sharon went on to hold nearly every top post in Israel’s government. Sharon was again the subject of my condemnation on Yom Kippur in 2000 after his visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount accompanied by hundreds of Israeli police officers, a visit that was used by Palestinians as justification for the riots that became the second intifada. This time the Israeli public responded to Sharon’s ‘thumb in the eye’ display of power by electing him prime minister a year later in the biggest landslide in Israel’s history.
To my surprise, Sharon first spoke about the inevitability of Palestinian statehood shortly after that election. By the time of his re-election in 2003, Israeli settlers, who had hailed Sharon as their patron two years earlier, condemned him as a traitor. In Sharon’s second government, Israel withdrew from Gaza and from a small portion of the West Bank, and completed much of the 450 mile long barrier that threaded through the West Bank, which he had originally opposed fearing it would become the de facto border for a future Palestinian state. Additional withdrawals of Jewish settlers and Israeli troops were stopped when Sharon suffered a stroke in 2005 from which he never recovered.
These moves by Sharon have mistakenly been called Nixonian in nature. The difference between Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China and Sharon’s recognition of the inevitability of a Palestinian state the consequent withdrawal from disputed territories, however, is that Sharon’s initiatives were completely unilateral. Palestinians were as surprised by Sharon’s withdrawals as were Israelis leaving a political power vacuum that proved disastrous for the residents of Gaza and undermining for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Though ill conceived, Sharon’s bold actions showed him to be a man who was not bound by ideology, a man who was capable of change for the sake of security.
Ariel Sharon was a man of his generation. A veteran of the 1948 war for independence, of the 1956 Sinai campaign, of the Six Day War, of the Yom Kippur War, and of the Lebanon War, he believed that Jews must assert and defend their collective needs without embarrassment or fear of censure. His embrace of Palestinian statehood, which earned him the opprobrium of the settlers whose cause he had so vigorously championed, demonstrated that he was not hamstrung by ideology, and that he was capable of change for the possibility of even a cold peace. As Vice- President Biden concluded in his eulogy, “[Sharon’s] North Star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish People wherever they resided.” There is no doubt that Israel would be in a better place today if Sharon had been given the strength to carry out his plans; nor is there any question that no one in power in Israel at present has had the vision to run with his baton.
With wishes for peace and security for all the residents of the Land of Yet Unfulfilled Promise, I am, as always,