Ariel Sharon, whose eight-year-long medical nightmare has now worsened, helped
save Israel at least twice. The first time, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, won
him worldwide acclaim.
The second time, against Yasser Arafat’s terror
war three decades later, earned him broad denunciations.
reflects the change in tactics in the decades-long war against Israel’s
existence, and the resulting plunge in Israel’s standing worldwide.
October 1973, Sharon, a fierce fighter who was left for dead in the 1948 war and
pioneered new tank battle tactics in 1967, risked a court martial when his
troops crossed the Suez Canal. Israel was reeling from the Egyptian-Syrian Yom
Kippur offensive. Defying his superiors, Sharon insisted that rather than
fighting defensively, Israel should take the offensive and enter Egyptian
territory. His daring maneuver worked, encircling Egypt’s Third Army and helping
This was Sharon’s Sabra Zionism; his Israel boldly
determined its own destiny. Millions toasted Sharon and his plucky little
country’s comeback from a dastardly surprise attack.
Since that Arab
military defeat, Israel’s neighbors have not invaded the Jewish state. Instead,
as the Israeli-Arab conflict became the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab
tactics shifted from armies and delegitimization to terrorism and
By 1975, when the UN General Assembly libeled Zionism
as racism, the Palestinian approach of globalizing the war against Israel began
getting traction. Rooting the fight against Israel in the broader
post-colonialist struggle, emphasizing Palestinian suffering and targeting
Israel’s controversial settlements cast Israel as the aggressor to many, not the
Israel – as we see in the latest academic boycott moves – became
caricatured as the international outlaw, the ultimate imperialist, colonialist,
racist nation – although its ties to the land make it guilty of none of those
crimes in what remains a national not racial border conflict. The Jewish state
has now become the favorite target of radical elite bullies just as Jews used to
be the favorite target of more vulgar bullies.
Over the decades the
conflict also became more complex, partially due to Sharon’s own
The Likud’s rise and Labor’s decline made Israel less
popular in Europe and with Social Democrats. Escalating the settlement project
from developing security footholds a la the Allon Plan and restoring Jewish
communities like Kfar Etzion, destroyed in 1948, to creating ideological
outposts sometimes surrounded by Palestinians, proved
Moreover, in the 1982 war against the Palestinians in
Lebanon, Sharon, as defense minister, overstretched by invading Beirut, then
failed to stop Christian Phalangists from massacring Palestinians at Sabra and
Shatila. Such moves had Israel’s critics calling the Jewish state Goliath, and
the Palestinians the new Davids.
As a result, in 2000, when Arafat
disappointed Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak by rejecting a serious peace offer and
leading his people back to terrorism, many outside Israel blamed the Israelis
and particularly Sharon rather than Arafat and the Palestinians. The resulting
waves of Palestinian suicide bombings catapulted Sharon into power as prime
minister in March 2001.
A year later, after terrorists murdered more than
130 Israelis in one month – and after the 9/11 attacks helped change American
policy – Sharon counterattacked. The military offensive against the West Bank in
April 2002, eventually calmed the region, but made Sharon a hated figure among
the Left and throughout the Arab world.
Israelis made a cosmic mistake by
not celebrating this victory over terror a decade ago. We deserved brass bands
and victory parades for our achievements, while Sharon should be lionized for
what he did.
Like Joshua’s ability to see “milk and honey” when his
fellow spies were terrified of giants, Sharon taught Israelis – and a terrorized
world – that democracies could defeat terrorists.
In building a security
fence and going on the offensive militarily, Sharon showed that the Palestinian
turn from negotiation toward terror disproved the delusions of both Israel’s
Left and Right. And with his final move, disengaging from the Gaza Strip and
parts of the West Bank in the summer of 2005, Sharon demonstrated that while
pandering to Palestinian terrorists would not bring peace, neither could
Palestinian aspirations be ignored.
Those deeming the disengagement a
failure forget the exorbitant military and diplomatic price Israel was paying
for staying in Gaza – Sharon helped staunch that wound.
It is fitting
that Ariel Sharon’s half-century in history’s limelight would end by confusing
his enemies, for he never fully explained his new vision. His post-disengagement
strokes left friend and foe alike to speculate about how he would have responded
to the first waves of rockets from Gaza and to the Hamas coup there, among other
Sharon’s career teaches us to appreciate unconventional
tactics, subtleties, complexities, and the need for pragmatism, not
There will be no peace until partisans on all sides can
acknowledge the situation as multi-dimensional and dynamic, realizing that
sometimes generals can become statesmen, warmakers can become peacemakers,
longstanding assumptions can become discarded notions, and foes can become
Sharon’s zigs and zags expressed and confirmed the non-messianic
pragmatism that has been the key to Zionism’s success. Most Palestinians remain
addicted to their maximalist, unrealistic fantasies. Zionists succeeded by
solving problems not seeking messianic justice, even after the Nazi
monstrosities. That search for solutions, that ability to adjust ideology to fit
new perceptions of reality, led David Ben-Gurion to accept the 1947 UN
partition, led Yitzhak Rabin into the Oslo gamble, and led Ariel Sharon to
re-enter West Bank cities in 2002, build a security barrier and leave
Ariel Sharon lacked Clinton’s charisma, Ronald Reagan’s eloquence,
Menachem Begin’s principles, or Theodor Herzl’s dreams.
epitomized the Sabra’s bold, improvisational, no-nonsense, can-do sensibility.
All of us who seek peace and abhor terror should be grateful for Ariel Sharon’s
majestic, far-reaching, surefooted Zionist pragmatism.
Gil Troy is
professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books
including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as
Racism, just published by Oxford University Press.