He was certainly Israel’s most courageous politician. He was also its cruelest. He was the leader who used brute force more than anyone to achieve his policies. But he was also one of the few to recognize the limits of force. This only happened at the twilight of his career, but it happened on a large scale, as did everything else with Arik Sharon.
His entire career, both military and political, was based on his courage and unrestrained lust for power. But it was him of all leaders, the bravest of the lot, who understood that the military power underpinning Israel could no longer guarantee its future. Israel couldn’t live by the sword forever. He realized this, though tragically and belatedly. He realized that Israel’s military superiority couldn’t be preserved forever.
Both before and after Sharon, Israel had supposedly courageous politicians like Yitzhak Rabin, basking in the aura of 1948. Rabin’s stomach quivered before he signed the Oslo Accords. Then there’s Shimon Peres, for whom courage is the main quality lacking to be considered a great statesman.
Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in the Israel Defense Forces’ history, never took a step before examining it through the lens of public-opinion polls. And there’s Benjamin Netanyahu, whose middle name is cowardice. All these leaders embraced military might as the only way to solve problems, without appreciating its limits.
We can only ridicule Likud’s tough guys in the post-Sharon era. In contrast to the shrill right wing – Israel’s charioteers who provoke the entire world – Sharon seems like a hero. There are the Danny Danon types who threaten America, the Uri Ariel types with their greed for land and threats of further expropriations, and there’s Netanyahu, who threatens to bomb Iran while impudently interfering in U.S. politics as if we were the superpower and they the vassal state. And there’s Avigdor Lieberman, who until recently aspired to find “substitute” allies.
The brave Sharon wouldn’t have dared. He understood that Israel has no future without American support, just as he understood that relying on Israel’s army and weaponry no longer sufficed. Sharon, as minister of wars and settlements, almost became the guiding agent of Israel’s history. But he realized that the nation’s future can’t be based on all this. He realized that we can’t defy the entire world, relying on our Iron Dome and thumbing our noses at the United States while depending on its support and deep pockets.
It’s possible, though doubtful, that at the end of his days he understood the crime of launching the first Lebanon war. He understood that Israel’s occupations only weakened it. He understood this regarding the Gaza Strip, even though a few years earlier he had been adamant that withdrawing would be disastrous.
The disproportionately acting Sharon became a measured man. The death throes of his previous positions were evident in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, during the second intifada, the final classic Sharon-style operation: Hit them mercilessly, kill, destroy and annihilate. Only later came the sobering realization that a defensive wall won’t protect Israel forever.
According to accepted international standards, Sharon was a war criminal. From Qibya in 1953 to Lebanon in 1982, he was linked to war crimes. The later-stage Sharon didn’t modify his moral code. In his own way, he realized the limitations in using only force. Maybe the United States of George W. Bush brought him to this realization. Maybe he understood more than others what was happening to the IDF, with its transformation into an occupying army and a police force in most of its activities, chasing children.
Whatever his motives, his transformation should have taught the Israeli right a lesson, but this didn’t happen. This was his biggest failure, though not his only one. The bravest of all couldn’t convey his concerns to his successors. On the contrary, they’re following the path of the earlier Sharon, totally ignoring the heritage of the later one.
He may have needed a few more years at the helm to consolidate his new ideas, which possibly peaked with the Gaza pullout. When Sharon sank into a coma, so did Israel. It returned to the path of the earlier Sharon – brutal, cruel and martial.
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