“To a hammer, every problem is a nail.” Through much of his career, that was often the assessment of Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, military hero, and security hawk who died Saturday at the age of 85.
Sharon’s commitment and contributions to his native land were never in doubt. As a giant of Israel’s founding generation, he led a series of brilliant and, when necessary, brutal campaigns to secure Israel’s independence and defend its people. As Vice President Joe Biden said in his eulogy, “Arik Sharon’s journey and the journey of the State of Israel are inseparable.”
When he turned from the army to politics, however, the tools that served Sharon on the battlefield served less well in the halls of power. In prosecuting the first Lebanon War as minister of defense, his objectives were murky and the results — including the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila — a blow to Israel’s self-image. As a leader of the settlement movement, he erected obstacles to a two-state solution that remain in place to this day.
And yet, without the drive and determination that earned him the nickname “The Bulldozer,” Sharon would never have led the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005. In typical Sharon style, he managed to anger both the Right (who saw the move as a betrayal) and the Left (who regretted that he acted unilaterally). Was Sharon sacrificing Gaza to hold onto the West Bank, or setting the stage for future withdrawals? The stroke that felled him eight years ago left this a mystery.
But perhaps there was no mystery. Perhaps, Sharon the hammer asked himself only one question: What is best for the survival and security of the State of Israel? The question led him to courageous victories and dark alleys, won him friends and enemies, and earned him this keen assessment from Tony Blair: “The idea that he changed from the man of war to the man of peace misses that which defined him. His strategic objective never wavered. When that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he sought peace.”