Commentary Magazine


Ariel Sharon: His Eye Was Not Dim

Ariel Sharon often seemed bluff and simple, and he would play that role: in discussions with his kitchen cabinet down at his ranch (they called it the “farm forum”), he would react to some erudite advice by saying: “I am a simple farmer, not a professor. Explain that again, in simple terms so even I can understand it.”

But Sharon was not so simple: he was at different times clever, smart, devious, emotional, unemotional, funny, dry, tough, compromising, unyielding. He was a pariah who transformed himself by the end of his public career into an extremely successful politician and widely admired statesman. Nicknamed the “bulldozer” for both his physical appearance and his military tactics, in politics he was unpredictable and wily. A hero of the right for decades until his decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005, the “father of the settlements” pulled all the settlements out of Gaza and became very briefly the hero of the “peace camp.” This founder of the Likud Party pulled Likud apart and founded a new party called Kadima when his plans required it. At one point he lacked a majority in his own cabinet to pass the Gaza withdrawal plan, so he summoned two unconvinced ministers to his office—to fire them so he would have the majority in a smaller cabinet. They knew what was coming so they refused to meet with him, whereupon he fired them by fax. It was not easy to get around Ariel Sharon once he had made up his mind.

All these contradictions made him a fascinating man to watch and to deal with. Yet he really was, I think, a simple man at root. He saw himself as a Jew whose job it was to protect the Jewish state. In early 2003, President George W. Bush sent deputy national security advisor Steve Hadley and me (I was the senior Mideast official on the NSC) to meet with him, hear him out, and see what he thought of the various peace plans. Was he open to compromises? What he told us, according to my notes of the meeting, was this:

I took risks personally but never took any risks with the security of the State of Israel. I appreciate Arab promises but will take seriously only tangible performance.  For tangible performance I will take tangible steps.  Israel is a tiny small country.  From the Jordan River to Jerusalem is only 17.5 miles.  Before 1967, the Knesset was in range of machine guns south of Jerusalem. From the Green Line to Tel Aviv is 11 miles.  From the sea at Netanya to Tulkarm is 9 miles.  Two-thirds of the Jewish population lives is a narrow strip on the coastal plain.  Between Haifa and Ashdod, which is 80 miles, is two-thirds of the Jewish population, our only international airport, and most of our infrastructure.  All of that is overlooked by the hills of Judea and Samaria.

I am a Jew above all and feel the responsibility to the future of the Jewish people on my shoulders.  After what happened in the past, I will not let the future of the Jewish people depend on anyone, even our closest friends.  Especially when you saw the crowds cheering Saddam who killed even members of his own family and government.  With the deepest friendship and appreciation, we do not choose to be the lamb, but not the lion either.  I will not sacrifice the nation.  I come from a farm family who settled here but I deal with these problems with a cold mind.  I met with the Pope, who said this is Terra Sancta to all, but Terra Promisa for the Jews only. 

So: “a Jew above all” who wanted Jews to be able to make their own decisions and protect themselves in their sovereign state. I often thought he divided the world into two groups, Jews and all the rest, the latter being further divided into real friends like George W. Bush and real enemies—like most of the Arabs. On this he was unsentimental in the extreme. In the summer of 2005 Sharon gave then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a tour of his ranch, after which the Israeli and American teams sat down for a meal.  Sharon sat silently for a while, as he often did, eating huge amounts of food while he listened to the conversation.  Several of the Israelis were criticizing the Palestinians and their leaders harshly: their actions, their political culture, their history.  Eventually Sharon jumped in and said, “I am going to defend the Palestinians.  I have known the Palestinians my whole life.  I was raised with them here.  Of all the Arabs, the Palestinians are the most talented, and they have the best sense of humor.  But there are two problems: their desire to murder and their taste for Jewish blood; and their treacherous ingratitude.”

It was an extraordinary moment, for we were discussing the Gaza withdrawal and Palestinian Authority’s take-over of Gaza for most of the meal.  We were arguing about what exactly the PA security forces were doing, and not doing, and how to force them and/or help them to do more.  But here was a remarkable glimpse of the layers underneath, at what Sharon really thought he was dealing with.  He wanted peace, he was taking enormous political risks for peace, but it was clear—as I thought about his remark over and over—that to him the best that could be hoped for was an armed peace. Whatever dreams others may have had about a new Middle East, Sharon saw his work as defending Jews from people who would murder them, as they had been murdered throughout history. Now Jews had a state and they could and would defend themselves, and he would create new lines and new separations that would, he hoped, make that perpetual task far easier.

As to where those lines should be, Sharon was as expert as anyone in Israel. Flying in a helicopter over the land, he would point out settlements he had planned or encouraged. But he did not need the flight; he knew the map, in detail. If we asked why the fence line had to go this way and that near some Palestinian village, curving instead of straight or straight instead of curving, he would tell us about the hills and the streams, the elevations and the shapes; he loved the land of the land of Israel with passion. He had seen that land as a soldier, worrying about Syrian troops coming down from the north, Jordanians coming from the east, and Egyptians from the south. As prime minister he used to say, when challenged on changing some position he had taken before as a soldier or civilian, that “what you see from here is not what you see from there.” But wherever he sat he always saw things as a soldier, worrying about Israel’s lines of defense—military and political.

His pullout from Gaza won him accolades from many governments, starting with our own and the Europeans. When he went to the UN General Assembly in September 2005 his dance card was full: everyone wanted to see Sharon, the old bull, the warrior-turned-peacemaker, the guy who had done something no other Israeli leader could have managed. That last was true, and Sharon used to tell me, “the left can’t do anything and the right won’t. If I don’t do it, it won’t ever be done. If I am defeated in this, no one will ever try it again.”

But Sharon had a long memory, and he knew that many of those paying tribute in 2005 had once viewed him as an untouchable. Even in America: In 1991, when Sharon had visited the United States as Minister of Housing, not a single U.S. official would meet with him formally. He had taken the blame for the failures of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon—he had been defense minister—and the massacre of Palestinians in two Lebanese refugee camps by Christian militiamen was deemed a stain not only on his leadership but his character.   On that trip, he was not invited to one U.S. Government office. Through the intervention of friends, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp finally agreed to see Sharon in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying. By 2004, the President of the United States was calling him “a man of peace” and Sharon no doubt enjoyed it. The idea that all insults bounced off harmlessly was, I think, entirely false; Sharon liked being liked, and he especially liked it when an American president trusted him, confided in him, and supported him. He enjoyed those days at the UN in New York. They did not go to his head, because he was too old for that, but you could not gain influence with him by blasting him—only by trusting, arguing, talking, trying.  President Bush knew that and it worked, or anyway worked unless Israeli security was in Sharon’s view directly at stake. He fought the intifada his own way, from building the security fence despite American doubts to surrounding Yasser Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah and cutting off his electricity. Bush used to urge Sharon: “Don’t kill Arafat, Ariel; don’t kill him, it’s not smart.” Sharon would nod and grunt—but never promise. After Arafat’s death in 2004, Bush thanked Sharon for restraining himself. Sharon smiled broadly this time and said, “Well, sometimes God helps.”

What were Sharon’s plans? He left no memoir or notes, so we can only speculate. Most of his closest collaborators agree that he wanted to set Israel’s borders before he left office; he wanted to act, not wait for the Palestinians. He did not think Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was a bad guy, but neither did he think Abbas would lead the Palestinians anywhere. This likely meant pulling settlements back to the fence line, securing the major settlement blocs for Israel in perpetuity, keeping the Israel Defense Forces in the Jordan Valley so as not to replicate what had happened in south Lebanon (and would soon happen in Gaza): when the IDF pulled out, terrorists moved in. Then someone could negotiate peace and a final status agreement some day, maybe in a few decades, maybe when the Messiah came. But meanwhile Israel would have secure borders and the key settlement blocs would permanently be part of the country. This is why he thought his exchange of letters with Bush in 2004 was a triumph: for the first time an American president said there was no “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees” and that, as Bush’s letter put it, “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers” would have to be reflected in any peace settlement. There would be no return to what are usually called “1967 borders” but that Bush rightly called the 1949 armistice lines. 

That day, April 14, 2004, was certainly one of Sharon’s happiest: in Washington, with a friendly president, with America on his side and backing his plans, and of course away for a while from Israel’s incessant political battles. Sharon’s comprehension of English was imperfect—Condi Rice once said he was the only person she ever met who spoke English better than he understood it—so he wasn’t immediately certain that the language Bush was using was everything Sharon had been led to expect. His staff later told us that Sharon was only convinced when an inveterate enemy of his in the Israeli press bitterly described the whole thing as a Sharon triumph. If that enemy was sour, Sharon could be sweet.

But this was Ariel Sharon; sweetness might have been nice, security was everything. Three weeks before visiting the White House, on March 22, he authorized the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas. And three days after the White House ceremonies on April 14, he authorized the killing of Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, who had replaced Yassin. There were protests everywhere, but those really did bounce off Sharon; terrorists who killed Jews had to be stopped. This was his job as prime minister.

Bush liked Sharon for many of the same reasons he liked Tony Blair or John Howard in Australia: they were people who got themselves elected not to enjoy life but to accomplish things. They were willing to take political risks to do what they thought right. Sharon as prime minister certainly met that test, though it cost him the support of many of his old friends in Israeli politics—not least among the settlers, who saw him as a traitor to the cause. During the Gaza withdrawal period, Sharon’s security was stepped up. “I’ve spent my life protecting Jews, and now I have to be protected from Jews,” he told me sadly at the time. He fully understood the bitterness many old allies felt, but Sharon the general was making a tough, unsentimental assessment of where Israel’s interests and security lay, and then acting.

He would calculate the balance of forces, and weigh the costs and benefits. And once he made that strategic calculation and decided what to do, it was all a matter of tactics and he would select the best one and press ahead. If you got in the way—whether you were an Egyptian army, Palestinian terrorists, or Israeli political foes—you were, as the nickname suggested, likely to be knocked over. He would drive right through you. What he did not calculate at all was how he looked, how the polls would be affected, whether his image would suffer.

In December 2005, his chief of staff came to Washington and told us Sharon wanted to move forward, to set Israel’s final borders—by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if as Sharon feared the Palestinian leaders would not be willing to sign anything. On December 18, Sharon suffered a small stroke, losing consciousness briefly. He was hospitalized for only two days. When he emerged, President Bush called him. “I will rest for a few days and then get back to work,” he told the president. The president told him to be careful: “We need you healthy; don’t work too hard.  Keep rational hours! Watch what you eat.  I want to see a slimmer Sharon! We need your leadership and your courage to get to peace.” Sharon replied that the two of them can accomplish many things; “I have no doubt I can move forward,” he said, “as long as the terror stops; Israel will not cooperate with terror.” That was the last time they spoke. 

On January 4, 2006, at his ranch, Sharon suffered the massive stroke from which he never recovered. His death was expected, and we in Washington laid plans for the funeral; the president intended to go. I wrote a eulogy for the president to read at the funeral, and kept the final version, worked over by the speechwriters, with me over the next few months so it would be handy when Sharon died:

Ariel Sharon also knew this land as a soldier. He enlisted in the struggle for a Jewish homeland as a boy … fought in all of   Israel ’s wars … and was severely wounded in battle. Over an army career, he became familiar with every inch of the terrain. He knew how high the hills were … how broad the rivers … where enemies would be likely to hide or strike. And knew he that the land he loved needed both swords and plowshares to prosper in an environment always harsh and often hostile. Ariel Sharon was a brilliant general—and led Israel to some of its most celebrated victories.  His experience also taught him the costs of war. In his autobiography, he wrote that “at the age of twenty, most of my friends were dead.”  Because he understood these costs, he believed so deeply in keeping Israel strong.  Because he understood these costs, the man who made his reputation in battle would also leave his mark as a peacemaker.

In his pursuit of peace, Prime Minister Sharon proved as daring and resourceful as he had been as a general and tank commander. As leader of his nation, he made decisions that caused him great personal pain—and that he knew would be unpopular with many who had been his closest supporters. Yet he stood by his decisions, for this warrior did not dream of more victory in battle; he dreamed of peace for the people he led. And when he committed Israel to a new plan for peace, he did so on the same terms that he had insisted on throughout his life – from a position of strength.

Bringing peace to his people was his life’s work, and Ariel Sharon kept at it up to the moment of his stroke. His energy and determination were a source of inspiration to men many years his junior. As the Scriptures say of Moses, his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. 

Sharon left the political scene in his prime, not physically but politically: on top of Israeli politics, a leader whom opponents and rivals feared and whom everyone understood was almost unstoppable. Sharon was born on a moshav in 1928, two decades before the state. The Israel he leaves finally, today, is a tower of strength and stability in a region being torn apart. Many Israelis contributed their lives to that achievement, but very few can match the contribution of Arik Sharon.

About the Author

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national-security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush. He is the author, most recently, of Tested by Zion, published by Cambridge University Press.




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