How does one eulogize the passing of an Israeli Prime Minister, especially one who was so colorful a personality, so great a general, so influential a national leader, and so committed to the security and viability of the democratic state of Israel as Ariel Sharon?
I saw Ariel Sharon twice, though I never met him. The first time he was leaving in a hurry, almost running out of the King David Hotel after having met with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the mid-1970s during Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The second time was when I had joined a delegation of American Reform Rabbis in 1998 to meet with PM Netanyahu and urge him not to bend to the ultra-Orthodox on changing Israel’s “Law of Return” to exclude Jews as Israeli citizens who had converted to Judaism with Reform and Conservative Rabbis. Sharon was walking through the halls of the Knesset and he glanced at us knowing who we were and why we were there, as the news of our mission were headlines throughout our stay.
He was a huge distinctive charismatic and handsome man Israelis nicknamed “HaShamen” (“The fat one”) – and he was indeed.
Despite Sharon’s mixed history, I became a fan – I admit it. I liked his spirit even if I disliked what he did in Lebanon and his settlement policies. I consider him a bonafide hero because he saved the state of Israel from destruction in the 1973 War of Yom Kippur.
My friend and congregant, Eli Yoel, was a commander of Israel’s Navy Seals in the Sinai before, during and after that terrible war. General Sharon, though not Eli’s immediate commander, ordered Eli nevertheless to prepare his men to cross the Suez Canal by laying down a bridge and fighting whomever they encountered. Sharon knew that this operation, as dangerous as it was for the soldiers leading it, was the only way to turn the war around and prevent the worst nightmare the Jewish people had experienced since the Holocaust.
Eli did as he was commanded, though he knew that half his 100 man strike force would be killed, including maybe himself, as he was leading the charge. Eli survived, but he lost half his men.
The operation was successful. Bridges were laid across the canal, and the Israeli Defense Forces entered Egypt and surrounded the Egyptian 2nd Army thereby compelling the United States to force a ceasefire.
The ’73 War was a tragic experience for the Jewish state. Yet, it laid the groundwork for the cold peace with Egypt that came out of the Camp David Accords in 1978.
Sharon also led Israel into the disastrous 1982 Lebanon War. He was the architect of Israel’s massive settlement policies in the West Bank. And he waged a relentless war against Yassir Arafat during the 2nd Intifada. Many Palestinians believe that Sharon was even responsible for the poisoning of Arafat.
It used to be said in Israel that when Syria’s President Hafez El Assad (the current President’s father) looked into a mirror each morning he would see the image of Ariel Sharon looking back at him. Sharon was at once the leader of a state, a military hawk, and a tribal chieftain who with paternal love embraced his people, but with ice in his veins would pursue any enemy threatening his people and the State of Israel.
The Arabs hated him and called him “the Butcher of Beirut” (though it was the Phalangist Christians who slaughtered over 900 innocent Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, not Israel).
Israelis trusted Sharon’s strength and resolve, his political savvy and cunning, and his courage even if they disagreed with him and his politics. When he became Prime Minister, some of my leftist Israeli friends confessed that they were glad that Sharon was the leader of the state of Israel, that only he had the character, credibility and guts to lead the state to peace.
Sharon understood the snake pit that was the Gaza Strip for Israelis, and that Israel had to disengage which he did unilaterally. He could have done so in conjunction with Mahmud Abbas and Fatah, thus giving them the credit and preventing (perhaps) the take-over of Gaza by Hamas, but he did not.
Sharon also came to recognize, as Yitzhak Rabin did before him, as Ehud Olmert did after him, and hopefully Bibi Netanyahu will going forward, that a two states for two peoples solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the only way to preserve Israel’s democracy, Jewish majority, security, and international standing.
Had Sharon not suffered the stroke, it is possible that a two-state solution would already have emerged. We will never know.
Ariel Sharon will go down in Jewish history, and deservedly so, as one of Israel’s greatest leaders. We may never see another leader like him.
Zichrono livracha – May his memory be a blessing.