Why the Israeli Public Loved Ariel Sharon

Israelis didn't judge him like other prime ministers, because he made them feel good about themselves.

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During his years as prime minister, Ariel Sharon had a status in Israeli public opinion that was reserved for him alone. He was considered not merely beyond left or right, but beyond good and evil – outside the realm of any moral judgment. Suspicions of criminality and corruption, of the type that brought down Ehud Olmert, only enhanced his popularity, as did his concessions to the Arabs – though these destroyed the political career of Ehud Barak and led to the unbridled incitement against Yitzhak Rabin that ended in his murder.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being tormented by allegations of hedonism and predatory capitalist policies, but such criticism never tainted Sharon’s reputation, nor did it undermine the people’s love for him. In the eyes of Israel’s mainstream, Sharon was above criticism.

An investigative report exposing his problematic behavior fell totally flat and was deemed irrelevant.

Other prime ministers have been accused of egoism, preoccupation with retaining power, and confusing personal and national interests, but not Sharon. He was allowed to lie during election campaigns and betray his voters. He was given carte blanche to do as he pleased.

Why was he given this exclusive privilege? Sharon succeeded in formulating an unprecedented national consensus around his leadership in Israel during the era of the intifadas because he persuaded a large percentage of Israelis – who had previously clung to inflexible truths of right and left, and right and wrong – that the truth is something flexible. He freed the fixed and polarized political discourse from its atrophied positions, and its subjugation to absolute truths.

In his mind he was the least religious and most Nietzschean prime minister Israel ever had. Nothing was particularly sacred to him; no principle immune from rethinking and adjusting if necessary. In terms of the Israeli mentality, this was a deep revolution of consciousness.

Did Sharon believe the settlements were a good thing? That depends. One can build and one can destroy. It depends on your perspective. There are no absolute answers, and certainly no answers derived from a universal ethic or divine right.

Is the occupation a good thing? Is there even an occupation? That depends. One may occupy and one also might not. It’s a matter of expediency or of changing realities. Once it was worthwhile. Now those Palestinians have become a big headache. So maybe it’s not worthwhile.

For Sharon, this way of looking at things was not just the result of pragmatism. His philosophy of life was much more nihilistic. Must a soldier obey an order? It depends. Certainly not always. Is war justified only when there’s no other choice? It depends. Even this sacred principle was smashed by Sharon.

In the deepest sense, Sharon had no God. He had no concept of justice that self-righteous and moralistic types could understand. For him, everything was relative. Such a person is liable to be very dangerous. He is also capable of ripping to shreds, without blinking, conventions that seemed eternal.

Shortly before suffering his stroke in 2006, Sharon gave an interview to Yair Lapid (a journalist at the time) in the kitchen of his ranch. He wore a broad, amused smile during the entire conversation, even when talking about his 11-year-old son Gur, who accidently shot himself at home and died in his father’s arms.

The impression he gave was that the premiership was not a burden for him. There was no hysteria and no history. Life flows, and he flowed with it. 

The paralyzing shadow of the Bible and the Holocaust and bereavement and the law – even what he had said just an hour before – did not hang over him. And Israelis, bound as they are to their stifling past, liked it very much. It made them feel good.

Former Prime Minister Ariel SharonCredit: GPO

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