The passing of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon brings to an end the era of illustrious military and political leaders who built the State of Israel. From among those who guided Israel in one form or another since its creation, only Shimon Peres remains. Gone now is Sharon together with Ben-Gurion, Dayan, Begin, Meir, Rabin, and others from the era of the founders.
Few figures have held as many different positions and were equally praised and disgraced as was Ariel Sharon. Both on the battlefield and in the Knesset, Sharon committed himself to what he believed was best for Israel. He took the heat, absorbed the fire, and bounced back. Whether it was largely ego or hubris, Sharon fought for his position, took his lumps, and came back to fight another day — both politically and militarily — until he met a force no one can defeat.
Curiously, it is his last years in office which perhaps offer the most fascinating insights into his remarkably complex personality. It also suggests the difference between Israeli leaders of the past and today. His life made more political turns than any leader ever took — an extraordinary lesson in light of the leaders who have the reins of power today. He was hardly a saint nor blameless for his mistakes, but his fierce love of country guided and transcended his booming ego.
As a military leader he not only followed and gave orders, but he also challenged them. From his days as a unit commander Sharon never hesitated to believe he had at least as much insight into events on the ground as did his superiors in the General Staff or the politicians. He repeatedly took the criticism, but his troops and those who served with him always knew the depth and truth of his commitment to the safety and security of the country. (Sadly, the responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacres has been totally and knowingly misunderstood by the Arab world and ignored by many in the West. As was demonstrated by the Investigation of Inquiry, Israeli forces under Sharon’s command were responsible for not doing enough to prevent the massacre, not for committing it. Those were the actions for which he was forced to resign.)
His service in a multitude of positions under a variety of prime ministers gave him a breadth of in-depth experiences — despite extensive controversy — so that, when he finally became Prime Minister, there were few who could or would challenge his understanding of issues. He served under long-time friends and colleagues, but also did not hesitate to break with them, even forming his own political party to challenge these very same friends.
Most importantly, he showed politicians that it was acceptable to change your mind. Many have invoked the “Nixon in China” example in remembering Sharon, who as prime minister became an actual peace-maker, repudiating so much of what he had espoused in previous governments. Sharon the settlement builder became the prime minister ready to return land to the Palestinians, to withdraw from Gaza, and even to uproot settlers on the West Bank. Even the most cynical political observer recognizes the conviction behind these policies.
This remarkable turnaround is a major part of the Sharon legacy. It was his courage to challenge his own beliefs which appears to be so lacking today among Israeli leaders of all stripes. Sharon was not concerned about what history would say about him. One must assume Sharon burned so many bridges that there was nothing he could do to repair them; however, he understood that history would judge him regardless of what he tried to do. As a result Sharon conducted his affairs according to what he perceived to be best for the country he loved.