Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a reviver of the language spoken in and by Israel. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda reinvented the words used in Israel, Sharon translated them into Israeli actions. Together with his predecessor as defense minister, Moshe Dayan, Sharon was more influential than any other individual in shaping the dominant dialect of the State of Israel: the language of force, of war, of occupation and violence.
Dayan and Sharon grew up in the same milieu and both believed deeply in this form of expression. Both enjoyed military glory, both lost favor at one point and were publicly denounced and marginalized before seeking redemption with a new-found moderation of sorts. Sharon was the more violent; Dayan’s rehabilitation was more impressive. History will remember both.
Sharon will be remembered as the father of Israel’s fundamental attitude, the doctrine of “only by force.” Israel never attempted any other language. He believed that the Arabs understood only the word of the clenched fist, and that its use was the only way to survive. Sharon vividly instilled in Modern Hebrew the old biblical warfare language; in fact, Ariel son of Shmuel was a biblical military hero no less than Jeroboam son of Yehoash or Joshua son of Nun. From his early days in the notorious Unit 101, through the bloody era of Sayeret Rimon and in the first Lebanon war, from the Qibya massacre to the Jabalya refugee camp and Beirut, Sharon was Israel’s minister of war. Now, a moment before the eulogies and praise begin to flow, this must be recalled.
Israel could and should have spoken a different language, but it never even tried. The Sharons and the Dayans, these brutal farmer-generals, convinced Israelis there simply wasn’t any other language. Sharon supported all military strikes, from the “reprisal operations” of the 1950s and ’60s up to Operation Defensive Shield, the massacre of civilians, destruction, expulsion and revenge. Sharon thus dictated not only Israel’s policies but its moral standing as well. Israel has had more moderate leaders, but they too adhered to his staunch principles and never let go of the proverbial stick that Sharon’s tough mother insisted he should never sleep without. Vera’s legacy became Ariel’s legacy, and then Israel’s legacy.
Sharon realized the hope of every statesman: to leave a legacy. A truly exceptional combination of personal and political bravery, Sharon’s vision will take years to undo. This charming and cruel individual was among the most talented and dangerous of Israeli leaders.
With the exception of the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, Sharon bears more responsibility than any other single individual in forging Israeli reality. He led the Israel Defense Forces in its conquests, near and far, wallowing for long bloody years in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. When he attempted redemption, with the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which was supposed to redeem us all, it was implemented in his image: arrogant and belligerent, without consultations, negotiations or agreements with the Palestinians. As opposed to others, he never hated Arabs: He simply did not trust them. The “bulldozer” was a man of large decisions and actions, “Arik, King of Israel,” did indeed leave his mark, and today’s statesmen still pale in comparison. The great damage the great man caused will be with us for a long time.
I recall a private tour of the Gaza Strip he gave me, in the winter of 1989. He was charming, but his talk was dangerous and deceiving. He tried to prove to me that Israel should never evacuate the Strip, due to the danger of missiles (and foot-and-mouth disease, which he said, would spread from Gaza into Israel), while in the same breath saying he would agreed to the return of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to Israel. He was the only Israeli statesmen who never paid attention to opinion polls or party hacks; he loathed them. Sharon proved he was a leader who could take decisive measures moves and make his mark on history; sadly, he brought Israel to its current sorry state.