The life of Ariel Sharon reflects, to a great extent, the various upheavals the State of Israel has undergone. Just as the young member of the Haganah (prestate underground army) from Kfar Malal became a glorified military commander, the driving force behind the settlement enterprise, and a symbol of Israeli power-orientation – manifested in the decision to launch the first Lebanon War in 1982 – Israel also went from being a David facing Goliath to a regional military power. At some point, Sharon – like the rest of Israel – came to understand the limits of power and its inherent dangers.
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When Sharon shocked his Likud comrades on the eve of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza by saying that the ongoing Israeli control of the territories was bad not just for the Arabs but also for the Jews, it was clear that realism and sobriety had overcome not just the settlement ideology but the intoxication with power that had characterized post-1967 Israel.
It emerged that the cruel dialectic of politics allows those affiliated with the right to carry out what the left wants to do but cannot. There is a great similarity here to Charles de Gaulle. While the French socialists wanted to withdraw from Algeria, they could never muster the required majority for the move. It was de Gaulle – who came to power through a military coup (something that could never happen in Israel) under the slogan “Long live French Algeria” – who put an end to 130 years of French control of the north African state, resulting in the displacement of more than a million French settlers.
From Sharon’s perspective, the disengagement constituted only the first chapter of a process that was to go much further in the West Bank, with his new party, Kadima, providing the necessary public support. The difference between the two, of course, lies in the fact that de Gaulle succeeded in implementing his policies, while Sharon’s effort was abruptly halted midstream.
What caused Sharon to change direction? First, even though he had initiated the forming of Likud, his origins were not in the Revisionist movement but in the Labor movement. Sharon was a hawk, but a security hawk, not an ideological one – even though at times he felt the need to use “Greater Land of Israel” language. Therefore, when he was convinced that an Israeli presence in Gaza was not a strategic asset but a burden, he had the emotional and moral wherewithal to make the tough decision to withdraw from the Strip and uproot the Jewish communities there, even though they had been established, in no small measure, at his initiative.
One needs considerable intellectual honesty combined with determination – if not brutality – to make such a decision.
In a deeper sense, though, a more fundamental insight lay behind the decision to go forward with the disengagement. Sharon, whose political career was almost destroyed following the first Lebanon war, learned lessons from that experience that many others failed to learn, and this was manifest in his words and deeds.
For starters, he began to understand the limits of Israeli power. Though Israel is the strongest military power in the region, it does not have the power to eliminate the Palestinian movement or force the Palestinians to accept Israeli control over the territories.
Second, given the way that Lebanon war polarized the country, Sharon understood that, in the future, when Israel would face a choice of making war or making peace, it was necessary to make every effort to keep the Labor Party in the government. He did this after he was elected prime minister in 2001, giving the foreign affairs portfolio to Shimon Peres and the defense ministry to Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. His forming of Kadima also expressed his desire to establish a central force on the political map that could attract moderates from both the left and right.
Sharon’s eulogizers will spend a lot of time discussing his legacy. It’s a complicated one; the settlement enterprise in the West Bank is certainly making the negotiating process more difficult. But the Gaza withdrawal points to the only process that seemingly has a chance – painful unilateral steps that, even without an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel can take in order to reduce its control over them, even as it preserves its security and survival as a Jewish state.