What Sharon and Rabin Knew

The two leaders, both warriors and former defense ministers, understood vital facts that the current defense minister has yet to grasp.

Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus
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Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus

With the death of Ariel Sharon, Israel has lost the second defense minister and prime minister who underwent a shift in his thinking from preferring war to preferring a peace agreement. Both Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin were involved in a tough war with the Palestinians, yet at some point in their careers they both altered their basic policies. The two leaders shared roots in the Labor movement and the same activist approach toward the Palestinians, yet each of them came to the conclusion that the Arabs were our neighbors and that we had to come to some kind of settlement with them.

The two prime ministers and defense ministers also understood that the Americans were an essential part of the picture. Sharon and Rabin also had an advantage over other leaders in that the public perceived them as military figures whose judgment went above and beyond party interests. In their rosiest (or blackest) dreams, the pair never would have believed that one, Rabin, would ultimately shake Palestinian leader Arafat’s hand and that the other, Sharon, would return territory to the Palestinians and uproot 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip in the absence of an agreement. In a conversation that I had with him, Sharon explained that what motivated him was a desire to free the people of Israel from the “dream of a Greater Land of Israel.” Rabin was assassinated, and Sharon sank into a coma before he completed the peace process that he had planned. The dream remained.

Many see a great loss in the death of the two warriors, both hawks-turned-peace seekers. In their wake, came former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who became engrossed in his personal whims and fancies, and now we have Bibi Netanyahu riding the nationalistic right wing’s wild bronco. The most important issue that Sharon and Rabin had in common was strategic cooperation with the American administration, including peacemaking efforts. Neither of them really believed that the Palestinians were capable of compromise on the territories, while in Israel considerable segments of the population are prepared to pay the price involved in returning land in exchange for a peace agreement. Sharon was mistaken when he removed 21 settlements -- 17 in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank -- without an agreement.

There is no right time to die. Sharon left the public arena eight years ago. “What bad luck,” one longtime politician remarked this week. “We lost the two strongest leaders who wanted and were capable of leading the way to an agreement and to concessions.”

In the drama that is involved in running a country, the revolver from the first act (surely Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon) takes the stage in the second act. Ya’alon had a score to settle because his term as army chief of staff was not extended to a fourth year. Instead, prior to the disengagement, Sharon preferred to appoint Dan Halutz, the popular commander of the Israel Air Force, on the assumption that Halutz would be capable of evacuating settlements “with determination and sensitivity.” These were qualities that Ya’alon was not exactly endowed with.

Deeply hurt and offended by the decision, Ya’alon explained himself at a farewell party thrown for him as chief of staff. “Do you know why I wear those tall shoes on the lawn of the general staff headquarters? Because there are dangerous scorpions and snakes there.” A response was not long in coming from his superiors: “He is one of those types of people who are not only foolish but also look foolish.”

In his arrogance, Ya’alon fit in well with those Greater Land of Israel folks in the Likud party who champion Israel’s presence in the West Bank. He bears his not insubstantial share of responsibility for the fact that Israel is the fourth hated country on earth.

Sharon, who following Rabin strengthened the 1980s strategic alliance with the United States, actually took great care to accord respect to American secretaries of state. His only mistake was when he remarked that Condoleezza Rice had nice legs.

As Defense Minister, Ya’alon gets huge sums of money to make Israel stronger. Yet he just couldn’t stop himself from foaming at the mouth and calling Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” and “suggesting” that we rid ourselves of him and his plan by giving him the Nobel Prize. Politics doesn’t consist just of cold calculation. Behind politics, there are people. Even Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman came out in Kerry’s defense, saying that his proposal is the best that we have ever received. The public is unaware of the danger it faces in the absence of a peace agreement. America will not necessarily remain a warm friend forever. One day the Americans could also hit the roof.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with Moshe Ya'alon when he was IDF Chief of Staff in 2002. Credit: AP

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