The death of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon marks the end not only of a controversial military and political career by one of Israel’s most important leaders, but also the end of an era characterized by schismatic changes in Israeli politics.
I met with Ariel Sharon only a few weeks before he suffered the disabling stroke that ended his career. He told me that having withdrawn Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, he was now contemplating a withdrawal from some parts of the West Bank. This from a man who had originally favored Israeli settlements in both areas. Having begun his political career on the right of the political spectrum, he was then leading a more centrist party seeking a middle ground toward peace.
Sharon was a man who never allowed the past to rule the future.
When he was a warrior, there was no one more ferocious or creative a military leader. He helped save Israel from defeat after the Yom Kippur sneak attack by Egypt and Syria. He performed heroically in other Israeli wars as well.
When he became prime minister of Israel, he looked for ways to bring about peace with security. The stroke ended the possibility that this hero of war could also become a hero of peace.
Sharon was a complicated man. In our last meeting, he asked me to withhold final judgment on the role he was accused of playing when Christian militia men killed Palestinian residents of two camps in Lebanon. He told me that some of the most important evidence would remain classified for several more years and that he was confident that when the full truth was known, his role would be seen in a different light.
In a larger sense, Sharon was a personification of both the Israeli character and the ethos that has made the Israeli military one of the best in the world. He was not a man who respected hierarchy. Indeed he sometimes disobeyed the orders of superiors. For him, creativity, whether in battle or in politics, was the greatest virtue. He had a knack for seeing around corners, for looking at things differently and for making unpopular decisions.
Like Israel itself, Sharon was not perfect, but he was better than most and unsurpassed in some of what he did. Many Israelis are now asking the question: “What if” Sharon had not suddenly been stricken — if he had remained healthy through his golden years?
For Israel, and for the Palestinians, there are a lot of what-ifs. What if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had not been assassinated so soon after signing the Oslo Accords? What if Yasser Arafat had died a few years before he rejected the generous peace offer made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton in 2000-2001?
Were he able, Sharon himself would probably tell us that history is incapable of answering those speculative, backward-looking what-if questions.
Israel must make its own future, because crucial what-ifs remain. What if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons? What if Israel attacks Iran and delays such developments? What if diplomacy and the threat of sanctions work? What if the current negotiations, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, actually lead to a two-state solution? What if they don’t?
As Israel confronts one of the most important years in its history — 2014 will mark the end of the nine-month negotiation period between Israel and the Palestinians and the end of the six-month preliminary deal with the Iranians — it will surely miss the creative mind and spirit of one of the most important members of its founding generation.
Many of Israel’s detractors, and even some of its supporters, will see only the negatives in Ariel Sharon’s history. That would be a serious mistake. Sharon should be judged both on his virtues and vices. In my view, the verdict of history will be that his virtues, both military and political, will outweigh his vices. He should be remembered as a bold innovator who made mistakes, but who helped his nation throughout his long and distinguished career.
Professor Dershowitz’s most recent book is “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.”
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