Center field: Ariel Sharon’s bold Zionist pragmatism saved Israel – twice

Sharon’s career teaches us to appreciate unconventional tactics, complexities, and pragmatism, not millennialism.

Former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon gazes at the West Bank  (photo credit: Reuters)
Former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon gazes at the West Bank
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
That shift reflects the change in tactics in the decades-long war against Israel’s existence, and the resulting plunge in Israel’s standing worldwide.
In 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 Israel triumph.
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 delegitimization.
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 victim.
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 contributions.
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 polarizing.
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 challenges.
Sharon’s career teaches us to appreciate unconventional tactics, subtleties, complexities, and the need for pragmatism, not millennialism.
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 friends.
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 Gaza.
Ariel Sharon lacked Clinton’s charisma, Ronald Reagan’s eloquence, Menachem Begin’s principles, or Theodor Herzl’s dreams.
But “Arik” 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.