Ariel Sharon was my hero. Since I identify with the center-left in Israel, I find that this is not a popular view with my Zionist friends, American and Israeli. Even those in my camp who came to grudgingly respect him were hardly ever as enthusiastic and as admiring as am I; and they wonder if I haven’t gone soft, forgetting my progressive ideals, and naively swayed - I spent some time with him alone on a few occasions - by Sharon’s charm and tough-guy persona.
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But I am insistent and undeterred. For much of his career, Sharon was a wild man, an original in the wrong way, unconstrained by normal concerns of morality and good sense. Yet after becoming Prime Minister, he got most everything right. He understood the world and American Jewry in a way that others did not, motivated always by a tough-minded realism that he applied in his approach to Israeli politics as well.
Let’s begin with America. For the last four years, relations between Israel and the United States have been in a constant state of tension. Every few months, Israel’s ambassador to the United States will proclaim that there is no crisis, thereby reminding us that the whole world thinks that there is. In a sickening downward spiral, Israel’s standing with the U.S. and Western Europe has continued to deteriorate, while the right in Israel and America curses Obama, holding him responsible.
Under Sharon, such a scenario is impossible to imagine. He would never have permitted it. There were ups and downs with America during his years, to be sure, but never a true crisis. He cultivated close personal ties with George W. Bush, who liked and respected him. At the same time, Sharon recognized that personal relationships are not enough. When America adopted the Road Map, so did Israel; he knew that Israel must not be isolated and that a Palestinian state was probably inevitable. He also knew that a direct challenge to American interests was impossible. But then, Sharon skillfully -brilliantly, in my view -negotiated with the Americans to clarify Israel’s right to retain the settlement blocs. In other words, he accepted the political realities of the Road Map imposed on Israel by its relations with America but then molded them to Israel’s advantage.
And this too: Sharon said “no” to the settler movement. He stood up to the fanatics and said that they would not determine Israel’s destiny. He proclaimed that permanent occupation was unacceptable and believed, rightly, that if he made the case, the citizens of Israel would follow him.
For decades, one Prime Minister after another, from the right and left, has equivocated and then collapsed in the face of pressure from extremist settler leaders. Time and again, Israeli politicians have demonstrated the same sniveling cowardice that American politicians have shown when confronted by the gun lobby. And American Jews, who effectively make Israel’s case to the American government and the American people, have watched with horror and dismay for 40 years as Israel’s cause has been undermined by a never-ending stream of announcements of yet another round of settlement construction.
But Sharon, finally, said “no more.” He proclaimed: We will not let the Palestinians off the hook by letting our own extremists determine the course of our politics. He let it be known that the future of the Jewish state and the well-being of the Jewish people will not be in the settlers’ hand. No one before him - since the Six Day War - has had the courage to do this, and no one has had the courage since.
In this regard, it is not an accident that Sharon was once a favorite of Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion preached 'mamlachtiyut,' the doctrine that Zionism, threatened by the hostility of its neighbors in an unstable region, required an assertive state that would set aside narrow party concerns in the interests of national well-being; to Ben-Gurion, terror from within was an abomination, and armed interest groups and party factions in the Jewish state were intolerable. If Sharon had lived and remained Prime Minister, the one thing that we can say with absolute certainty is this: The 'price tag' Jewish terrorists who attack Arabs in the name of Torah would have been dealt with long ago, and they would no longer be blackening Israel’s name and undermining her values.
And finally this: It is popular to say that unilateralism doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. Ariel Sharon was absolutely right to get out of Gaza. If Israel had controlled Gaza for the last 8 years, with fewer than 10,000 settlers remaining among the 1.7 million residents of the area, Israel’s situation there, and in the world, would be far worse than it currently is. And if the current peace negotiations do not yield a settlement, unilateral steps will be necessary to retain the support of the United States and the international community without sacrificing Israel’s security. Sharon would have understood that, and would have done what was necessary.
Sharon is gone. Israel has suffered a terrible blow. May her current leaders remember the man and his legacy, and learn from his example.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.