In January 1985, as a colonel in the Israel Air Force, I was running a course for high-ranking officers of the IDF, focused on lessons from Israel’s wars. One of the case studies to be discussed was the battle of Um-Katef/Abu-Ageila in the Six Day War, when the division of Gen. Ariel Sharon broke the backbone of the Egyptian army and enabled the breakthrough into Sinai, thus paving the way to Israel’s great land victory.

This highly complex combined operation, executed impeccably at night, has since been studied in many military academies all over the world, as a model for generalship at its best. Needless to say, I was going to invite Sharon to speak about this battle.

The problem was that Sharon was in New York at that time, suing Time magazine for libel. The trial was nearing its end, so I called Sharon’s hotel in New York, hoping to speak with his close friend and confidant, Uri Dan. Instead, Sharon himself answered. “Of course,” he said immediately.

“I’ll be in Tel Aviv in a few days and will speak to your course.” Then he had a very strange request: that an officer should wait for him at the airport, to take him straight to the IDF History Unit. When he arrived after the long flight, instead of going home, he spent six hours studying the details of the battle he had fought 18 years before.

The following day, he arrived at our course and gave a mesmerizing lecture. Escorting him to his car, I couldn’t help asking why he needed to refresh his memory about a battle he had probably known by heart. He looked at me and said: “Young man, I just spoke to a group of serious people. You have to prepare for that.” Then he added: “Whatever you do, do it properly.” (“Kmo she’zarich,” in Hebrew.) Actually, for Sharon, kmo she’zarich wasn’t exactly “doing things properly”; in his dictionary, the more precise translation was “doing things as they should be done,” with Sharon himself deciding the criteria. Sixty years ago, when the newborn Jewish state fell victim to ceaseless terrorist infiltrations on its Jordanian and Egyptian borders, and the IDF seemed incapable of stopping them, then-Maj.

Sharon established Unit 101, a semi-partisan band of warriors who spread havoc in Jordan and Egypt using highly unconventional methods. Many in the IDF and the Israeli government felt that this wasn’t the proper way to do things, and Sharon would pay a price with his military career, but Israel regained its deterrence.

Retiring from active duty in the summer of 1973 and hungry for a political career, Sharon was confronted by the hostile Labor establishment, which had ruled Israel for ages and viewed the charismatic general with suspicion.

Instead of bowing to the existing powers, Sharon surprised them by acting as the force behind the establishment of the Likud Party, which, four years later, snatched the hegemony from Labor.

During the Yom Kippur War, he did a lot of things his superiors thought were improper – so much so that they even talked about firing him. Luckily for Israel, they didn’t. His performance during the first dark days of the war, when he calmly and expertly led his troops in containing the invading Egyptian army, will go down in our history as the quintessence of Israeli resilience. Not to mention his crossing of the Suez Canal, which turned the tables on the Egyptians.

In 1982, as defense minister, when he felt he’d had just enough of the Palestinian intransigence coming from Lebanon, he manipulated Menachem Begin’s government into the First Lebanon War. Again, was it done kmo she’zarich? Depends on who you ask. The Kahan Commission of Inquiry, established after the Sabra and Shatila massacre carried out by Lebanese Christians, then Israel’s allies, obviously thought it wasn’t, and sent the defense minister home. Sharon, on the other hand, believed that he had done the right thing by kicking Yasser Arafat and his terrorist apparatus from Lebanon, thus hammering in the message that you can’t mess with Israel for so long and get away with it.

Ten years later, as housing minister, he was entrusted with the awesome task of accommodating a million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (the equivalent of accommodating 50 million immigrants in the United States in one year). He stood up to the historic occasion.

Did he do it properly? The state comptroller, who had investigated it later, didn’t think so and reprimanded Sharon for ignoring budgetary constraints and normal government procedures. Yet, by giving these people a home in Israel, Sharon achieved one of the greatest feats in the history of our country.

Finally, as prime minister, he came to the conclusion that Israel shouldn’t be ruling millions of Arabs, and that it has to adjust its borders accordingly. When he met opposition within his own Likud, he again broke away from the impasse by creating a new party, Kadima. As far as the way in which he disengaged from Gaza, some said he should have played a greater part in ensuring that Gaza stayed under the control of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, instead of letting it slip into the hands of Hamas.

But, again, this was Sharon’s way: He didn’t believe that there was a credible Palestinian partner and therefore did what he thought was good for Israel, unilaterally.

Today, when many Israelis feel that their political leaders can’t accomplish much in any given area, the imminence of Sharon’s final departure, even after a long illness, is especially painful. Controversial as he was during his lifetime, Israelis today salute a warrior and a leader who – for better or worse – knew how to do things kmo she’zarich.

The writer, who now serves in the Israel Air Force Reserve, is director-general of the Jerusalem Press Club. From 1992 to 1996, he was director of Israel’s Government Press Office, serving as chief spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments. As Ariel Sharon’s health was in serious decline last week (prior to his death on Saturday) following eight years spent in a coma, Dromi was invited to reflect on his legacy.

This article originally appeared on JewishJournal.com on January 11.


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