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In All Respects, Sharon Is Israel: Its Many Faces and Contradictions

January 12, 2006
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Michael Oren

 

In All Respects, Sharon Is Israel: Its Many Faces and Contradictions

Shalem Center scholar Michael Oren writes in The Wall Street Journal (www.opinionjournal.com) on Jan. 6 that Ariel Sharon depicts Israel's formative era:

Michael Oren

"Irrespective of his prospects for recovery, Ariel Sharon's passing from public life represents not only the fall of the pre-eminent figure in Israeli politics but, more fundamentally, the conclusion the formative era in Israel's history - a period Mr. Sharon has personified.

"Mr. Sharon has been intimately identified with every major event in that history. An infantry officer in the desperate battle for the Jerusalem corridor in the 1948 War of Independence, leader of the paratroopers in the 1956 Sinai campaign, he rose to the rank of general and commanded divisions in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. With the sole exception of Shimon Peres, he has been a member of the Knesset longer than any other Israeli, and remains unsurpassed in his ability to forge and maintain coalitions. He began his political career on the left, swung keenly right, and concluded in the center. Mr. Sharon, more than any single Israeli, represented the finest ideals of the Jewish state - its heroism, resilience and versatility - as well as many of its most controversial policies.

"And, like Israel, Mr. Sharon was a ganglion of contradictions. No issue more starkly demonstrated the twists in Mr. Sharon's policies than the so-called Oslo peace accords Israel signed with Yasser Arafat in 1993. Whether as a leader of the right-wing opposition or as a minister in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon consistently warned that Arafat would never abandon terror, and that Oslo was leading Israel toward disaster.

"His predictions were borne out in 2000, when Arafat's Fatah faction joined with Islamic terrorist groups in launching a war of suicide bombers and roadside ambushes that devastated Israel's economy and nearly shattered its society. Elected in February 2001, Mr. Sharon refused to meet with Arafat, and eventually mounted a counteroffensive that destroyed the terrorists' infrastructure, and left Arafat isolated and besieged in his West Bank headquarters. But then, Mr. Sharon again pulled a volte-face, and began stressing the need to make "painful sacrifices" for peace, and became the first Israeli prime minister to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

"What appeared to be inconsistencies in Mr. Sharon's positions were often merely a reflection of his ability to sense out the preferences of the Israeli mainstream. When it became clear that the majority of Israelis would no longer fight to defend 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza, he evacuated settlements and left the Palestinians to shoot at one another. When Israelis overwhelmingly supported the construction of a West Bank fence, Mr. Sharon, who originally opposed the barrier, began to build it. When most Israelis despaired of the status quo with the Palestinians but gave up on the possibility of finding a Palestinian leadership able to negotiate Israel's borders, Mr. Sharon broke away from the status-quo Likud and founded Kadima, a party capable of redrawing Israel's borders unilaterally.

"The handsome commando and overweight politico, the 'bulldozer' who pushed Israelis in and out of settlements, the lover of Hebrew whose first language was Russian, the secularist who revered Jewish faith, the fighter of wars and the champion, ultimately, of peace - Sharon's had multiple identities. And yet, he has always been thoroughly Israeli, the embodiment of the state's paradoxical nature."

Time Just Seems to Have Run Out for an 'Indispensable Man'

Editor in chief of U.S. News & World Report (www.usnews.comMortimer B. Zuckermanwrites in its Jan. 16 issue that Ariel Sharon has been utterly indispensible:

Mortimer B. Zuckerman

"Who would have guessed just a few years ago that millions of people around the world, including the vast majority of Israelis, would be praying for Ariel Sharon?

"The massive hemorrhage that brought such an abrupt halt to the remarkable, 50-year career of the last of Israel's founding fathers came, tragically, just as he was on the cusp of his greatest political triumph: the victory of his new political party in national elections, which would have afforded the first real chance to settle the final borders of Israel.

"Sharon believed that a leader's job is to lead, not to follow the polls. Most Israelis understood clearly that Sharon could be counted on to face down any challenge confronting the country. They also saw that his policies were the result of original, outside-the-box thinking, the same trait that marked him as such a brilliant battlefield tactician and such a cunning foe in Israel's corridors of power.

"Sharon's vision was to be the leader who established Israel's permanent borders. To this end, he abandoned the Likud, the party he had helped establish, because its members opposed disengagement and the settlement withdrawals. In Likud's place, Sharon created a new centrist party called Kadima, mean[ing] 'forward,' but now, sadly, the way forward is not so clear.

"Sharon was elected in 2001 because of the intifada terrorist campaign. Israelis trusted him to stop it. But this was a war almost nobody believed could be won. Nobody but Sharon, that is. He quickly developed a comprehensive strategy, including retaking the West Bank territories, isolating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and assassinating terrorists and their political backers while raising the price of violence so high that many Palestinians began seeking a normal life.

"Sharon abandoned the failed policy of trading land for peace, concluding that Israel simply did not have a responsible partner for peace. Instead, he initiated the construction of the still-unfinished security barriers between the West Bank and Israel, and began planning the withdrawal from Gaza. In this, Sharon intuitively resonated with the mystic chords of an Israeli public disgusted with the Palestinian culture of terrorism and violence, and with the Israelis' own presence in the territories. In this way, he captured the deeper sentiments of so many Israelis who long to separate from the Palestinians, with or without an agreement. It was Sharon's unique strength of character that allowed him to put these policies into practice, in the face of almost impossible odds.

"Separation and withdrawal were central to Sharon's plans. He simply couldn't imagine waiting for a responsible Palestinian leader to deal with when Hamas is emerging as such a powerful political force, and when the Fatah electoral list is headed by a man serving five life sentences for his role in the murder of Israelis.

"Sharon will go down as one of the greatest prime ministers in Israel's history, one who restored a sense of direction and moral purpose to his people, and became the indispensable man with the strength and vision to realize his goal of final borders for the Jewish state.

"Given the chance, Ariel Sharon would have qualified for an honored place in the pantheon of the greatest leaders of his people, joining Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism; Chaim Weizmann, who generated worldwide support for the founding of Israel; and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first premier. Time, tragically, seems to have suddenly run out for this great and good man, but the world will never forget him."

 

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