Preliminary biographical dilemmas

People develop, particularly ones who change history, like Ariel Sharon.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
"The IDF is ready as never before; it can fend off an Egyptian attack and it will take a generation before Egypt can threaten us again," assured Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon in a momentous meeting between a bellicose General Staff and a skeptical security cabinet less than a week before the Six Day War. In what would prove emblematic of the pre-2002 Sharon, that statement contained both the military focus and the geo-strategic ignorance whose combination was once Sharon's hallmark. For decades, Sharon embodied the political bull in a china shop, the one whose disregard for norms and complexities made him bully US diplomat Philip Habib, harass prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, provoke the Temple Mount's ghastly spirits, and rattle the entire country of Lebanon. The gap between that Sharon and the one we all now wish a full recovery is unique even among comparable political careers. Yes, Lincoln did not become a crusading abolitionist until well after the outbreak of the Civil War, Nixon offered no hint of his Chinese somersault until well after his arrival at the White House, and de Klerk never hinted he would end apartheid until he assumed his country's leadership. People develop, particularly ones who change history. Still, Lincoln did not invent slavery, Nixon did not father the Cold War, and de Klerk did not devise what he undid. Yes, Ben-Gurion, the IDF's founding architect, made a much longer ideational journey since the days when he thought the Palestinians descended from the ancient Judeans and would join the Jewish socialist cause. Yet Sharon's transformation was more dramatic than all these, for he was not just the only Israeli who destroyed settlements, but also their builder. It follows that Sharon's biographer will have to offer a thesis as for the moment, cause and significance of his massive transition, so vividly recorded in a televised meeting when Sharon preached to Likud's astonished Knesset faction the drawbacks of ruling over a foreign population. So unfathomable did that appearance initially seem that some suspected it was a hoax. Did Sharon keep a diary, like Moshe Sharett and David Ben-Gurion? Did he arrive at his new convictions suddenly or gradually? Did some of his right-winger's heresy nest in him already in fall 2000, when he climbed the Temple Mount? Did his age, or the passing of his wife Lily shortly before his rise to power, affect his political behavior in any way? Did a particular event fuel his belated epiphany? If so, what was it: the success of the one-man, one-vote demand in South Africa? The terror war here? The rise of Islamist fundamentalism worldwide? Did any individual lead him to new ideological pastures, and if so, who? Weisglass? Olmert? Peres? Hopefully, these tough questions will be answered in due course. SHARON'S BIOGRAPHER will face an even greater dilemma in just deciding which Sharon is more historically significant: the soldier, the politician or the statesman. How would Israel have developed had Sharon not created the Likud, and where would the Likud have headed had Sharon not done to it what he did to the Katif settlements? Just like Julius Caesar's biography was written differently according to its respective writers' generations and locations, some reflecting admiration and others disdain for strong leadership, Sharon's biographers will inevitably echo a contemporary assessment of his diplomatic impact. If the fence proves militarily effective and diplomatically durable, then Sharon will be written down as a visionary trailblazer. If it is ignored, whether by violence or peace, then he will be depicted as a tactician who failed to rise to the strategic occasion. Some may argue, in the spirit of Tolstoy's and Hegel's historic determinism, that the fence would have risen anyhow, because of the conflict's persistence and the Israeli people's will. Others yet, in the spirit of Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous essay "Historical inevitability," will argue that the fence, let alone the Gaza retreat, could not have happened despite or even regardless of Sharon, only because of him. As a general, of course, Sharon's deeds will be easier to assess. His role in shaping the IDF's fighting spirit and commando tactics in the 1950s, then in offsetting the Yom Kippur War, and finally in turning the tide in this decade's terror war are likely to make military historians mention him in one breath alongside Hannibal, Napoleon and Rommel. Still, the fact that he will likely be universally admired as a militarily historic figure does not necessarily make Sharon's a lasting imprint on Israeli, let alone Jewish, history. WAS SHARON'S role in shaping our destiny comparable to Ben-Gurion's, Weizmann's, or Menachem Begin's? In terms of its pretensions it clearly was. Sharon's effort to etch in concrete Israel's borders, like his accomplishments in restoring the Israeli consensus and his goal of easing conversion procedures even at the cost of exposing his ultra-Orthodox flank, were the kinds of aims that transcend immediate political squabbling and potentially render one a towering, historic figure. In terms of these initiatives' impact, however, the jury is still out, and will remain there for many years. Still, it isn't too early to say that in his determination to disengage naive Israelis and violent Palestinians, Sharon was not unlike Hegel's "great man," whom the German philosopher defined as one who expresses his contemporaries' will, knows to tell them what he wants, and then also gets it done. It is also natural to think of Sharon when reading sociologist Max Weber's insight that the people yearn for a charismatic personality in moments of crisis, when the ruling elite loses the nation's trust, the masses become fearful and unconfident, and a sense of deep failure becomes pervasive. The setting from which Sharon's premiership emerged in winter 2001 was clearly such. Obviously, no Israeli biographer will fall into the trap of ignoring Sharon's faults, the way Hegel scolded those who derided Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great for their corruption. Having once seen Napoleon at the peak of his conquests, Hegel wrote almost breathlessly "I saw the Emperor - that World Soul," and attested it was "truly a wonderful sensation to see such an individual." Granted, when this was written, in 1806, the full extent of Napoleon's damage had yet to unfold. Sharon's damage, both that which he helped undo and that which will never be redeemed, will have to be addressed in his biographies, as will all the questions raised here, including the most pressing of all the questions surrounding Sharon's public life: Is it really over? (Based in part on Zvi Yavetz's Then and Now: History and Zeitgeist.)