Appreciation: Farewell to an Israeli hero

The eight-year struggle into which he maneuvered the angel of death was a fitting capping stone for a life of confrontation, daring, and heroism.

Sharon surveys territory (photo credit: Reuters)
Sharon surveys territory
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ariel Sharon died the way he lived – at war.
The eight-year struggle into which he maneuvered the Angel of Death was a fitting capstone to a life of confrontation, daring and heroism that has long been, and will surely remain, the subject of legend.
What began with a severe injury in the bloody Battle of Latrun in 1948 eventually produced a warrior as fearless as Samson and a general as gifted as Hannibal.
Sharon’s military imprint came in three phases: as a commando in the ’50s he created Unit 101 that inspired the IDF’s ethos of initiative, stratagem and assault; as a general in 1973, he spearheaded the crossing of the Suez Canal that overturned the Yom Kippur War; and last decade, as prime minister, he inspired the counteroffensive that defeated the second intifada.
In morphing from soldier to politician, Sharon smoothly transplanted his ability to reinvent situations, as he welded four parties to form the Likud, paving the way for its historic defeat of Labor three years later.
However, in between these feats, the hero in Sharon repeatedly crossed the fine line between boldness and adventurism. What first surfaced in his unauthorized and costly assault on the Mitla Pass as a colonel during the 1956 Sinai Campaign, later reappeared as Sharon made the transition from politician to statesman.
The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the blanketing of the West Bank with settlements, all of which followed his appointment as defense minister in 1981, divided Israeli society in a way many thought it could not absorb politically, digest socially or afford diplomatically.
Then again, his improbable arrival at the premiership unveiled yet another Sharonesque surprise, as Sharon produced a new Sharon.
Sharon arrived at the helm as a settled septuagenarian, whose adventurist instincts had been tempered, perhaps also by the tragic passing of his beloved wife Lily shortly before he reached their joint journey’s summit.
Sharon the premier impressed both allies and rivals as a seasoned pragmatist who blended experience, counsel, resolve, a sense of direction and a steady hand on the wheel. It was a combination that few contemporary world leaders possessed.
The respect Sharon won from leaders like US president George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin reflected a post-heroic era’s longing for historic heroes.
Sharon may or may not be counted in the future alongside the likes of de Gaulle, Adenauer, Begin or Sadat, but he was clearly a product of their era.
Besides defeating Palestinian terror, Sharon made three moves that – had he not fallen comatose – might have eventually undone his political career’s two main legacies: the Likud and the settlements.
Sharon first built the anti-terror fence, then retreated from Gaza and finally established Kadima. In between these he reversed his historic hostility to Palestinian statehood and came out openly in its support.
While he built the fence grudgingly, realizing it would potentially compromise Israel’s grip on what sprawled beyond it, Sharon seemed to be leaving Gaza with no compunctions.
By the time he launched Kadima, where the doyens of Greater Israelites emerged under one canopy with Oslo mastermind president Shimon Peres, Sharon had in mind a political big bang that would reboot Israeli politics and hopefully untie the Middle east conflict’s Gordian knot.
Eight years on, the Likud is back at the country’s helm and the settlements remain where Sharon left them. Historians will therefore break pens debating both Sharon’s ability and his intention to do in the West Bank what he did in Gaza.
One thing, however, will not be debated: The ostracized Sharon returned transfigured, as the beloved embodiment of the very consensus he had once shattered.
Today, even his adversaries admit that beloved he also leaves.