Why Sharon mattered
By Richard. Z. Chesnoff
Last week doctors announced that the 85-year-old Sharon's "primary organs" has begun to fail and the Ariel Sharon death watch was launched in full swing. Now his son Gilad Sharon announced: "He has gone. He went when he decided to go."
It is a moment to take stock of what a controversial figure whose career has spanned the history of the state of Israel means to his country, to the world's most volatile region and to the world. Sharon's is a legacy of total devotion to his people and land, to no fear of seeking new ways to try for peace within so horribly troubled a region.
For most of his countrymen and his myriad of admirers overseas Sharon epitomized the ultimate "sabra," the bold, often brash born-in-Israel farmboy who went on to become one of the prime heroes and victorious commanders of Israel's 1948 War of Independence, a war in which the Jewish state had seemed to be decidedly outnumbered by its Arab enemies.
"Arik the Bulldozer" certainly didn't stop there. He became the instrumental figure in the planning and execution of the 1956 Suez War, then a prime strategist in the almost miraculously victorious Six Day War of 1967 and its aftermaths and in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Egypt surprise-attacked Israeli forces and crossed the Israeli-occupied Suez Canal.
Not everyone considered him a hero. In the Arab world and particularly among the Palestinians he was quite the opposite. When Lebanon's Christian Phalangist Militia stormed and murdered anywhere from 460 to 800 men, women and children in Palestinian refugee camps near Beirut, Sharon was harshly criticized in his own country for not having doing enough to prevent the slaughter.
Eventually, he was forced to resign as Defense Minister.
Sharon would, of course, go on to become the leader of the right-wing Likud in 2000, and then serve as Israel's prime minister from 2001 to 2006 possibly the most influential Israeli head of government since David Ben-Gurion, the father of his country.
His expertise was across the map from security and army plans to finances and day-to-day politics, from finding ways to attract the new mass influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants to building hundreds of thousands of new homes for them.
For journalists like myself, interviewing or meeting with Sharon always involved his careful display and detailed explanation of at least a half-dozen multi-colored maps he would unroll.
The points Sharon made on his maps were not always the same. He was not being duplicitous; circumstances had somehow changed and Sharon had no fear of changing his perspective to match the times.
The evolution is instructive, and stunning. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Sharon became a loud, vocal champion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, while serving as prime minister in 2004-05, Sharon began to orchestrate Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
As Sharon once said, "Just as I thought it was in the national interest to build these settlements, now I'm telling you it's in the national interest to take them down."
Facing stiff opposition to this policy within the Likud, he left the party in 2005 to form the new Kadima (Forward) party. His worst stroke occurred just a few months before he had been expected to win a new national election. Some of his closest colleagues have described him as being on the edge of not only desettling Gaza, but preparing for "a planned unilateral withdrawal that would clear Israel out of most of the West Bank."
Sharon fully carried out the controversial Israeli withdrawal from Gaza before he became comatose. But it failed to bring peace not because of Sharon but because of the Palestinian Authority's inability to maintain control of Gaza. Scores of PA officials were thrown to their death off roofs by hyper-radical Hamas madmen who then completely took over Gaza and soon began shelling Israel. The to-fro rocket wars that continue to this day continue to fracture life in both Gaza and Israel.
The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has continued to bedevil Mideast leaders and American Presidents to this day, needs more than Secretary of State John Kerry's frequent-flier trips to find a way to a peace settlement. It needs more than President Obama and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's public dueling on who is bamboozling whom.
It needs more than Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refusing to publicly recognize the Jewish state as just that, and more than Israeli government ministers referring to the 1967 armistice lines as "Auschwitz Borders."
It needs to a large degree someone canny, principled and candid like Ariel Sharon. As Mideast expert David Makovsky, now a member of the State Department's Mideast peace negotiation team, once said: "Arab officials have demonized Sharon for years. On the other hand, they have this respect for him as the only one in the Middle East who is a man with a plan. . . . He understood that if the public had zero faith in the enterprise of peacekeeping and zero faith in the other side, that you could still yield land and not make Israel more vulnerable.
"He saw that the status quo was untenable, but you needed a new model, and that's what Sharon introduced into the equation."
Too bad Arik can't do that anymore.
Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.