I find myself unexpectedly affected by the death earlier this week of Ariel Sharon, the eleventh prime minister of the State of Israel and one of its greatest military strategists.
It’s true that Sharon has been gone from the Israeli political scene, and from public life itself, since suffering a stroke in January 2004, so it’s not as though his death will alter any part of the day-to-day scene in Israel in any material way. But, nevertheless, his death doesn’t feel inconsequential to me at all. Just to the contrary: his passing feels like a turning point to me, even despite his absence from the public arena over these last years. Sharon was an old-school leader of his people, one who led by example and who had—and in spades—the courage of his convictions, but also one who was able to grow intellectually and politically in the course of his years in power, and who had the inner strength to allow that growth to alter his opinions and his policies as he grew older. In fact, it was precisely that capacity for inner growth that set Sharon apart from those who have followed him in office; he was a great man not because of his stubbornness, although he was by all accounts a very stubborn man, but because of the elasticity of his intellect and his ability to develop intellectually and morally, to morph forward into ever-more-refined versions of himself, and to see things differently as the light shifted and illuminated what he saw before his eyes differently than previously.
The outlines of his life are well known. Arik, as he was universally known in Israel and by many abroad, was born in 1928 in what was then British Palestine. His parents, Shmuel and Vera Scheinerman, were immigrants from Russia who had settled in Kfar Malal, a village in central Israel named for Moshe Leib Lilienblum, one of the earliest Zionist philosophers and theoreticians. He was still a teenager during the War of Independence, but he participated in the Battle for Jerusalem and ended up as a platoon commander. Ben Gurion himself bestowed the name “Sharon” on him, partially because of its assonance with Scheinerman and partially because Kfar Malal is on the Sharon Plain, but also as a way symbolically of detaching him from his family’s past and charging him with the fulfillment of his destiny to lead his people into the future.
When he was still in his twenties, he became the founder and commander of Unit 101, a Special Forces unit of the IDF charged with combatting terrorism. By 1956, when the Suez War broke out, Sharon was commanding a brigade of paratroopers and led the successful effort to seize the Mitla Pass in the Sinai from the Egyptians who were defending it. Sharon became known as an extremely aggressive, strong-minded strategist, but many of his efforts were clouded by controversy regarding his tactics, the losses (on both sides) he was prepared to find acceptable, and his general inability to subordinate himself to his superiors. Nevertheless, Sharon emerged as one of Israel’s most admired military leaders, a man whose entire life was subjugated to the single goal of making the citizens of Israel safe and their nation secure.
He played a major role in the Six Day War as well, commanding Israel’s largest and most powerful armored division in the Sinai and playing a key role in securing the Sinai for Israel in the course of a war that lasted for less than a week. But Sharon’s greatest hour came during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when he led the effort—devised by himself—simultaneously to incapacitate Egypt’s Second Army and to encircle the Third, thus effectively to neutralize the ability of both armies to participate in the conflict. This was later understood by most Israelis to constitute the turning point of the war and Sharon emerged as its hero, as the single military leader who had done the most to secure victory.
But Sharon’s future lay not in the military arena, but in politics. He was elected to the Knesset in 1973, but resigned the following year. By 1977, he was Israel’s Minister of Agriculture. But it was in 1981, when Sharon became Israel’s Minister of Defense, that he really became a key player.
The following year, Sharon personally masterminded the 1982 Lebanon War, which was successful in that it effectively ended the PLO’s ability to function as a kind of state-within-a-state in Lebanon, but which also led to the massacre of civilians, almost all of them elderly men, children, or women, in the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut and the adjacent Shatila Refugee Camp. The Israelis did not perpetrate the massacre, which was carried out by Christian Phalangist troops, but the Kahan Commission later determined that Sharon knew that the Phalangists were entering the neighborhood and the camp and so bore responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge and not taking appropriate measures” to prevent either. As a result, Sharon was forced to quit his position in the Defense Ministry, although he remained in the Begin government and in subsequent governments in various other capacities: as minister without portfolio, as the Minister for Trade and Industry, as Minister of Housing Construction, as Minister of National Infrastructure and, eventually, as Foreign Minister. And then, in 2001, Sharon was elected Prime Minister by an overwhelming margin, defeating Ehud Barak by winning sixty-eight percent of the vote. And he remained in office until the end of 2005, when he suffered the first of two strokes that permanently ended his career. He remained in a coma until he died last Saturday and was buried next to his second wife, Lily, the sister of his first wife and the mother of his two surviving children. (Sharon’s oldest child, a boy named Gur, died after a terrible accident in 1967 in which he was accidentally shot to death by a family friend.)
Sharon’s greatness lay in his ability not to be enslaved to his own past. In the early part of his career, he was entirely convinced that the only hope for a secure Israel lay in the use of brute force to make attacking Israel so unpalatable to its enemies that they would eventually desist. He was a warrior in the traditional sense of the word, one who felt that peace can only come from the defeat—and particularly the military defeat—of a nation’s enemies. That some of those enemies fought in regular armies and could be engaged on the battlefield while others chose the path of terrorism and had to be combatted, so to speak, on their own terms and on their own turf—these were mere details that had to be taken into account in planning a successful path forward towards the eventual resolution of conflict through the annihilation of the forces arrayed against one’s country. He was, in that sense, Israel’s Patton—a military man who believed in gaining the upper hand through aggressive offensive action against the foe wherever that foe may be found. What General Patton might have become had he lived—he died in 1945 after a tragic automobile accident near Speyer, in occupied Germany—no one can say. But Sharon grew past that part of his own past and, when he was through being Patton, he became Eisenhower: a fierce warrior who eventually came to realize that peace in the world grows not from the annihilation of the enemy, but from the resolution of conflict in a way that makes former adversaries able to live together in the world without conflict and in peace.
By the time he became Prime Minister in 2001, Sharon’s sense of how to create a secure Israel had changed dramatically. He publicly spoke about the reasonableness of the Palestinians having a state of their own and openly endorsed the so-called Road Map for Peace put forward by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia and supported enthusiastically in its day by President George W. Bush. When the plan stalled, Sharon proceeded unilaterally to press forward with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which involved the forcible expulsion of more than nine thousand Israelis from twenty-one settlements in Gaza. For anyone else, this would have constituted political suicide. Joan and I were in Israel in the summer of 2005 as this was going on and we personally witnessed the extreme emotions, both positive and intensely negative, that the Gaza withdrawal stimulated in every corner of the country. Sharon survived a leadership challenge led by Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, but ended up leaving his own party and forming a new one, Kadima, in the fall of that year. New elections were called, which Sharon was widely expected to win and which victory would have given him a clear mandate to continue on with his plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank. (The details of that plan have only recently been made public; interested readers viewing this electronically can click here to read an interview with Rafi Eitan, a now-retired high-ranking Mosad official and later a government minister, who knew Sharon personally and was privy to his thinking in the months before he was felled by his strokes.)
It is precisely in his ability to grow intellectually and to act forcefully, not on opinions once held, but on the way he had come to understand Israel’s best chances for a peaceful future—in that remarkable elasticity lay Sharon’s greatness. He was a man who had nothing to prove. His entire life was devoted to his people and to his country. He was a big man—physically huge, personally fearless, politically daring, and the very embodiment of military and political courage—and he was, in my opinion, one of the greats. He erred repeatedly, but he learned from his mistakes and seemed willing to go where none had gone previously when he saw that the path previously chosen was not leading his country where he wished to see it go. In my opinion, that is what it truly means to be a hero.
I have written to you many times now about the role of the hero in modern life and the peculiar way the concept of heroism itself has been debased and eroded in our day. But that does not mean that there are no heroes in the world, only that modern society has chosen over and over to award the designation to mere opportunists whose “bravery” consisted mostly of reckless efforts at self-aggrandizement. Sharon was not in the category. He was, if not the “Lion of God” or the “King of Israel” as his supporters liked to reference him, a brave man who weathered endless controversy for the sake of doing what he believed to be best for the State of Israel and for its citizens. Israel could use more leaders like that. And so could we!