I’ve always thought that the reason Ariel Sharon was such an enduring presence in Israeli political life is that he personally reflected three of the most important states of mind that the state of Israel has gone through since its founding. At key times, for better and for worse, Sharon expressed and embodied the feelings of the Israeli Everyman as much, if not more, than any Israeli leader.
The first was the enduring struggle for survival of the Jewish people in Israel. The founding of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world would never be a natural act, welcomed by the region. There is a Jewish state today because of hard men, like Ariel Sharon, who were ready to play by the local rules, and successive Israeli prime ministers used him to do just that. Sharon — whom I first met at age 16 when I interviewed him for my high school newspaper after a lecture he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1969 — always had contempt for those in Israel or abroad who he believed did not understand the kill-or-be-killed nature of their neighborhood. He was a warrior without regrets and, at times, without restraints. Not for nothing was a Hebrew biography of him titled “He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights.”
Sharon could have perfectly delivered a Hebrew version of the speech Marine Col. Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, delivered in the climactic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men,” justifying the death of a weak soldier, Santiago, under his command. In Sharon’s case, it would be justifying his no-holds-barred dealing with Arabs who resisted Israel’s existence back in the 1950s and ’60s.
As Jessep told the lawyer trying him: “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? ... I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. ... You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”
Many Israelis wanted Sharon on that wall, which is why he survived so many crises. At the end of the day, they always wanted to know their chief warrior, who played by the local rules, was available.
But, in the 1980s, Sharon also embodied a fantasy that gripped Israel — that with enough power the Israelis could rid themselves of the Palestinian threat, that they could have it all: resettling Jews in their biblical heartland in the West Bank, plus settlements in Gaza, docile Palestinians, peace with the neighbors, and good relations with the world. That fantasy drove Sharon to team up in 1982 with the Christian Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel on a strategic overreach to both oust Yasser Arafat and the PLO from Lebanon and install Gemayel as a pro-Israeli prime minister in Beirut. Ronald Reagan was in power in the United States; Anwar Sadat had just made peace with Israel and taken Egypt off the battlefield. The little Jewish state, Sharon thought, could rearrange the neighborhood.
That Israeli overreach, which I covered from Beirut, ended badly for everyone. Sharon was deemed by a 1983 Israeli commission of inquiry as “indirectly responsible” for the horrible massacre of Palestinian civilians by Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The fiasco in Lebanon (which also gave birth to Hezbollah), followed by two Palestinian intifadas, seemed to impress on Sharon the limits of Israeli power.
Indeed, I don’t know what, if any, epitaph the Sharon family will etch on his gravestone one day, but an adaptation of the most memorable line from Clint Eastwood’s classic “Magnum Force” would certainly be appropriate: “A country’s got to know its limitations.”
That was the conclusion that Sharon, the settlements builder, came to late in life — and so, too, did many Israelis. He acted on it by getting elected prime minister and then parting ways with his old Likud/settler allies, moving to the center and orchestrating a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. He surely would have tried something similar in the West Bank if he had not had a stroke. Sharon remained skeptical that the Palestinians would ever make a true peace with Israel, but he concluded that occupying them forever was harmful to Israel’s future and, therefore, a third way had to be found.
Once again, Sharon was expressing the sentiments of the Israeli Everyman — which is probably why President Barack Obama got such a warm reception from Israeli youths when, on his visit to Israel last March, he justified his own peace diplomacy by quoting a wiser and older Ariel Sharon, as telling Israelis that the dream of a Greater Israel had to be abandoned: “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Sharon said.
Few Israelis are neutral about Sharon. I think that’s because some part of him — the hardheaded survivor, the dreamer that hoped Israel could return to its biblical roots and that the Palestinians would eventually acquiesce or disappear or the sober realist trying to figure out how to share the land he loved with a people he would never trust — touched something in all of them.