In Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s tribute to Ariel Sharon, he emphasized Sharon’s legacy as a military commander rather than his record as a political leader. This is perhaps understandable. Netanyahu strongly disagreed with Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza strip. More importantly, however, Netanyahu’s excessive caution over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compares unfavorably with Sharon’s ruthless, determined and decisive leadership as prime minister in 2005. In that year, Sharon boldly removed Jewish settlers from Gaza, and brought them back into Israel proper.
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In doing so, the settler movement’s former champion incurred the wrath of Israel’s Right. He realized belatedly that Israel needed to start redrawing its own borders, in view of the growing demographic threat facing the country.
Sharon had always been ruthless both as a military man and a politician. For most of his military and political career, he was also remarkably reckless. It was the military commander Sharon who oversaw the notorious reprisal on the West Bank village of Qibya in October 1953, in response to a series of terrorist attacks on Israel. The Qibya operation resulted in the deaths of some 70 Palestinians. Sharon was also the chief architect of Israel’s deeply controversial invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. He was later forced to resign as defense minister following the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, which was carried out by Christian Phalangists.
Israel faced a barrage of unprecedented international criticism, following claims that the Israeli forces had allowed the massacre to happen.
As a Likud minister during the 1980s, Sharon had long advocated turning Jordan into a Palestinian state. In one of King Hussein’s numerous meetings with Britain’s then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the Jordanian monarch expressed great concern over Sharon’s claim that Jordan was Palestine.
Thatcher was so unhappy about this that she summoned Israel’s ambassador to demand an end to Sharon’s provocative statements.
THE PROBLEM was that Sharon appeared to care little for international opinion. His controversial visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount site in September 2000, revered by both Jews and Muslims, was viewed by many as the spark that ignited the second Palestinian intifada.
Once Sharon became Israel’s prime minister in 2001, Sharon shed his reckless nature. Sharon’s approach toward the Iranian nuclear threat was a good deal wiser than that of Netanyahu. He did not place Israel at the forefront of the campaign against Teheran, since it was in his country’s interest to demonstrate that an Iranian nuclear weapon was a problem for the entire world and not just for Israel.
Sharon remained uncompromising in resorting to force in the face of a sustained Palestinian campaign of violence. Yet in 2003, Sharon came to realize that military might could only take Israel so far in its long-standing conflict with the Palestinians.
His order to disengage Israeli military forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005 was an audacious, highrisk move. Many believe that it helped to bring Hamas to power in Gaza, while fueling Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. At the same time, it set a precedent for future unilateral Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian territory.
If Israelis and Palestinians are unable to reach an accommodation in 2014, a future Israeli government could conceivably follow in Sharon’s footsteps, directing a massive evacuation of Israeli settlers from the West Bank, in order to unilaterally determine Israel’s future borders with the Palestinians. Make no mistake: this would be far from the perfect solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
However, in the short term at least, it would demonstrate that Israel can take control of its destiny, while enhancing its longterm health as a Jewish and democratic state.
The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He is writing a book on Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East.