Ariel Sharon was Israel — with all of its gumption, innovation, determination, virtues and faults. He was a man of extremes, both as a warrior and as a Prime Minister. He manifested the quintessential quality of the nation-state of the Jewish people: chutzpah.
General Sharon displayed his chutzpah in every war in which he fought, defying orders, bending the rules and achieving victory at all costs. He then did the same thing as Prime Minister, ending the occupation of Gaza, changing political parties and moving aggressively toward peace before he was struck down by a debilitating stroke.
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I knew Ariel Sharon when he was Prime Minister, and I met privately with him just weeks before his stroke. I don’t think he would have denied the label extremist. He believed that extremism, if necessary to preserve his beloved Israel, was warranted. He also believed that extremism, if necessary to bring about a controversial peace, was warranted.
During our last meeting he confided to me that he was considering extending the Gaza withdrawal to portions of the West Bank. Because he did not believe that he had a partner for peace in the Palestinian leadership, his way was unilateralism. Israel would determine its own destiny without regard to whether the Palestinians agreed or not.
His decision to build the security barrier, though designed primarily to protect the Israeli home front from terrorism, was also a decision to create a unilateral reality on the ground. Sharon’s Israel would be the area within the security fence. Outside the fence the Palestinians could decide what to do, as long as what they did did not compromise Israel’s security.
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Sharon was not a diplomat. He didn’t much like diplomats. He liked people of action, people who took decisive steps to create new realities. For him the past had a vote but not a veto. His vision was narrow: today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. He was not a prophet. He was a doer. His hero was not Moses the lawgiver but rather Joshua the military defender of the Jewish people.
Sharon rarely looked backward, with one striking exception. He was plagued by the Israeli commission that had held him indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian militiamen. As I was getting up to leave our final meeting — a meeting neither of us knew would be the final one — he put an arm on my shoulder and said, “I want to talk to you about Sabra and Shatila.” I hadn’t raised the subject, but he had to know that it would be a part of his biography that I would find disturbing. He told me that some of the documentary evidence was still secret and would become public only after a while. He asked me to withhold final judgment about his role in that terrible event until all the documents were released and could be carefully studied. I promised him I would do so.
The rest of Sharon’s life is an open library of many volumes, beginning with his days as a soldier during Israel’s first years and culminating with the evacuation of Gaza and the building of the security barrier. An in-between volume contains perhaps his most important contribution to Israel’s survival: his decision to defy orders and surround the Egyptian army to end the 1973 war in which Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur and almost defeated it militarily.
Sharon’s victory not only saved Israel from a potential military disaster, it also opened the door to the eventual peace reached by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.
Ariel Sharon will be remembered in Israel as a transformative military and political leader. He should be remembered by the world as a flawed man who did some great things and would have done even greater things but for his stroke. As with Israel itself, his virtues well exceed his flaws, especially when he is judged against other world leaders.
On a personal level, I liked Ariel Sharon because he was always direct and to the point. He did not suffer fools, nor did he talk the talk of politics or diplomacy. His tragedy, and the tragedy of the Middle East, is that if he had remained vibrant instead of suffering his stroke, he may well have been the hero not only of war but of peace.
Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law