When larger-than-life figures such as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon die, writers struggle to adequately summarize their legacies. But few historic leaders are as as difficult to assess as Sharon, who died yesterday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in January 2006. A man born in 1928 whose military and political career reflected the entire history of the State of Israel, there is simply no analogy to be drawn between Sharon and any contemporary American leader. It’s not just that he was, perhaps, the last of those who were part of the Jewish state’s founding generation to pass from the scene. Nor does Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza during his last years in power — making him a belated hero to many on the left and causing him to be reviled by his erstwhile backers on the right — entirely explain why it is so hard to neatly pigeonhole his career.
Love him or hate him, there was never any denying that Sharon was an extraordinary soldier and one of those rightly seen as one of the chief architects of the victories of the Israel Defense Forces during the several wars it was forced to fight to defend the state’s existence in its first decades. Nor could even his sternest critics deny that he was almost as good a politician as he was a military man. By the time illness felled him he bestrode his country’s political scene and, at least for a short time appeared to have permanently altered its balance with the creation of a new centrist party built around his personal reputation and philosophy.
But though the Jewish state’s enemies decry him as a war criminal because they believe Israel has no right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction, the problem with understanding Sharon goes well beyond the usual pro-Zionist/anti-Zionist arguments or even those that divided Israeli politics during his long career. Sharon may have seen himself as consistent in his concerns for his country’s safety, but his behavior and decisions always reflected an impulsive nature that was impatient with hierarchy and the norms of the democratic political process. As such, it is impossible to talk about what he accomplished and what he tried to do without resorting to conditional praise or criticism.
As Elliott Abrams, who dealt directly with him during the George W. Bush administration, writes here in COMMENTARY, Sharon was a bundle of contradictions that made him fascinating. He played at being the bluff citizen soldier/farmer in the tradition of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, but he was actually something of an intellectual, sensitive to criticism and capable of looking at problems from a variety of points of view. He was capable of complex thinking. The British military historian Peter Young described Sharon’s plan for an assault on an Egyptian position in the Sinai during the Six-Day War as almost impossibly complicated yet brilliant. But his defining characteristic from his earliest days in command to his last days in power appeared to be an indomitable belief in his personal judgment and a determination to ignore other points of view. Sometimes this worked; but not always. And sometimes the cost to others—and to Sharon—was greater than he imagined.
The examples of when his brash resolve was not only right but also inspired are integral to the history of Israel’s early conflicts. His decisive leadership as the head of the country’s first commando unit and its paratroop brigade stemmed the tide of cross-border terrorism that threatened to overwhelm the country in its first decade. Similarly, his exploits during the Six-Day War, his campaign quelling terror in Gaza in the early 1970s and, most memorably, when he led the counter-attack across the Suez Canal against Egyptian forces during the Yom Kippur War that turned the tide of that conflict, showed the benefits of having a general who didn’t always play by the rules. His heroism in this era etched for him a permanent place of honor in Jewish history. The same can be said for his decisive reaction to the second intifada as prime minister when he commanded a counter-attack and ordered the construction of a security fence that effectively defeated the terrorists.
However, that same impulsive nature would sometimes prove disastrous. His decision to ignore orders during the Sinai campaign of 1956 resulted in a deadly ambush of his paratroop brigade at the Mitla Pass. Many of its veterans never forgave him. On a larger scale, this scenario played out again when he turned the limited offensive against Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon that Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to in 1982 into a drive to Beirut that embroiled Israel in an ill-conceived attempt to transform Lebanese politics that was bound to fail. That was bad enough, but the alliance with Lebanese Christians also led Sharon to ignore warning signs of trouble and resulted in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by the Christians that allowed Israel’s critics to claim the entire offensive was a war crime. Time Magazine and others that claimed he was directly responsible for the crimes committed by Lebanese who had suffered their own atrocities at Palestinian hands, in fact libeled Sharon. But Sharon had still blundered and his unwillingness to work cooperatively with colleagues or superiors was, at least in part, to blame.
That same characteristic was at play when he made the decision to try to break the logjam with the Palestinians by making unilateral gestures that would, he hoped, determine Israel’s borders without a peace agreement. In this case, the same “bulldozer” that helped establish settlements throughout the territories used his determination to push through the forced evacuation of 9,000 Jews from Gaza. He put the proposal to a vote of Likud Party members but ignored the negative result. As Abrams notes, he did the same thing again by firing recalcitrant ministers in order to get the Cabinet to approve the scheme. His decision to ignite what Israeli political writers called the “big bang” and destroy the Likud in order to create a new centrist faction called Kadima was a product of the same belief in his own star. He skimmed the leading opportunists of both Likud and Labor together under the same tent and, seemingly, altered the country’s politics forever by promoting a new pragmatism built on the clear failures of both the right and the left.
But though we are being subjected to a chorus of eulogies lamenting that Sharon’s stroke cut short a real chance for peace, the Gaza gambit was as much a flawed big idea as the drive to Beirut. We are now told that the magic force of Sharon’s personality and political popularity would have somehow enabled Israel to set its own borders and then effectively hamstring Palestinian terrorism. But just as unforeseen circumstances proved that Sharon’s strategically brilliant vision for transforming Lebanon from a Palestinian terror bastion into an ally was inherently flawed, so, too, was the notion that the Gaza withdrawal would lead to de facto, if not de jure, peace. As I wrote last week, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is what is preventing peace, not the lack of a leader of Sharon’s stature. For all of his great qualities and dedication to ensuring Israel’s security, Sharon’s popularity would not have survived the Hamas coup in Gaza and the years of missile strikes that followed. Nor would his plan for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank have rallied the world behind Israel’s position. Though Sharon believed, as Abrams writes, that he had achieved a lasting victory by getting Bush to back Israel’s position on the settlement blocs, that triumph didn’t survive Bush’s replacement by Barack Obama.
At a time when the Jewish people needed great soldiers, Sharon was exactly that. His leadership qualities and dogged persistence in pursuit of power also inspires our admiration as we study his three-decade run as an Israeli politician. He wanted a secure Israel as well as an end to the conflict with the Arab world and if he did not succeed (and probably could not have even if he had not fallen ill) in the latter endeavor, he deserves credit for trying. But his career also demonstrates that while a lone wolf can sometimes achieve great things, a man who can’t work comfortably within democratic structures or listen to colleagues is also liable to create disasters. Ariel Sharon’s memory should be as a blessing, but his career is a cautionary tale about the inherent limits of his unique style of leadership.