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Israel’s Bulldozer

Ariel Sharon's greatness and failings were both rooted in a reckless spirit.

By From the March 2014 issue

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When he died at 85 on January 11, Ariel Sharon had already passed from the current concerns of pundits to the more detached reflections of historians. In January 2006, when he was stricken by a massive cerebral hemorrhage, Sharon wasn’t only the prime minister of the state of Israel. The former general was the living symbol of Israeli military power and a master politician who transformed the country’s politics in pursuit of a vision of peace. But at the moment of his death, although the symbol remained, his political achievements had already proved ephemeral.

Sharon’s death evoked two different types of reaction around the world, both of them fundamentally mistaken.

In the first of these, he was depicted as one of the major villains of the long-running conflict with the Palestinians. That was the Arab point of view, often echoed in the Western press, in which the former general was the man who had unnecessarily intensified the bitterness of the conflict through his military brutality, building of settlements, invasion of Lebanon, provocative walk through a shrine in Jerusalem, and construction of a security fence that symbolized to its enemies Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

While it’s undeniable that Sharon was involved in some of the bloodiest chapters of the century-long Arab-Jewish war over the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, it would be incomplete to absolve the Palestinians and their enablers of their responsibility for unceasing belligerence, requiring Israel to defend itself from a war aimed at nothing less than its total annihilation.

The second perspective, shared by many in the West, held that Sharon was the one who might have ended the conflict, if only he had lived. In this version, the man known to both admirers and foes as “the bulldozer” was the only Israeli leader with sufficient credibility on security issues to do what American advisors have long told Israel it must do: end its presence in the West Bank and thus solve the problem that had plagued the country since 1967.

Sharon did overturn the apple cart of Israeli politics in 2005 by withdrawing every soldier and settlement from Gaza, in a unilateral plan backed by the Bush administration, which hoped he would follow it—as he had planned to do—with a similar pullout from most of the West Bank. But, as most Israelis now acknowledge, the Gaza withdrawal resulted in utter disaster. The evacuated territory did not become a forerunner of ultimate harmony, in which economic development fostered both Palestinian independence and peace. Instead, it was soon taken over by the terrorist group Hamas, and turned into a launching pad for missile attacks on southern Israel. If Israelis are now reluctant to repeat their experience with the West Bank—as Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to persuade them to do—it is because they view Sharon’s Gaza gesture not as a great man’s grand strategy for peace, but rather as the last of his bold strokes that failed.

Both misconceptions—the warmonger and the man who might have made peace—were rooted in parts of Sharon’s biography, but they both omit the context of his career. He was a larger-than-life personality who cultivated the buff image of citizen soldier, an Israeli Cincinnatus, with a farm to which he retreated when his fortunes fell. A brilliant soldier and cunning politician, he was bold enough to see opportunities where others feared to tread, yet also reckless enough to fail to understand that his faith in his own star—and the contempt in which he held others—could lead to disaster. None of his achievements would have been possible had he not lived up to his nickname—had he not been the bulldozer. But those very traits also accounted for his defeats.

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 in Kfar Malal, a moshav (a semi-collective farm whose members owned their own land) north of Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. He came of age just as the conflict between Jews and Arabs over the fate of the land was decided, and he began his military career in the Haganah, the Jewish community’s pre-state militia, later rising quickly through the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after statehood.

Sharon’s rapid ascent through the IDF was due in no small part to his brashness, as well as his courage under fire. He came to the notice of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, and his army chief of staff, General Moshe Dayan, as a bold battalion commander. In 1953, Sharon led a special squad—dubbed Unit 101—tasked with combating the cross-border terrorism that plagued the country in the early 1950s. In its only year in existence, Unit 101 established a pattern in which Israel meted out harsh retaliation against Jordan and Egypt (which occupied the West Bank and Gaza from 1949 to 1967) for encouraging terror groups to kill Israeli civilians. The first such counter-terror operation, at Quibya in the West Bank, led to dozens of Arab civilian deaths. Although Sharon had blundered, Ben Gurion didn’t punish him because he believed the evidence that Israelis were willing to fight back would give them “the possibility of living” in a region whose inhabitants were dedicated to reversing the outcome of the 1948 war. Quibya had been the staging area for an attack on a neighboring Israeli town that had resulted in the deaths of an Israeli mother and two infants. Without such bulldozers as Sharon to face down their enemies, Ben Gurion believed the tiny state wouldn’t last.

Sharon’s career continued in this pattern. He was castigated for ignoring orders during Israel’s 1956 Sinai campaign, but was again backed by Ben Gurion and won acclaim as one of the army’s most successful division commanders during the 1967 Six Day War and its aftermath. But though he hoped for a promotion, his personality and his political leanings—he was the rare example of a senior commander unsympathetic to the country’s ruling Labor Party—ensured that he would not achieve his goal.

Sharon retired from the army in 1973 to a farm in the Negev Desert—reputedly Israel’s largest single holding—purchased with the help of friends. He set about unifying Israel’s centrist and right-wing parties into a new party called Likud to be led by Menachem Begin.

But before the Likud had a chance to make its electoral debut, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack that October on Yom Kippur—the most sacred holy day in Judaism. Israel’s losses during the first days of that war set the stage for the event that would prove the climax of Sharon’s military career, as well as the making of his reputation. As chaos reigned on Israel’s southern front, with other commanders seemingly paralyzed, Sharon took the initiative and led a counterattack across the Suez Canal that forced the cease-fire that ended the war. Only a bulldozer who ignored his colleagues’ fears could have done it, and the iconic photographs of Sharon, his head wrapped in a white bandage leading his soldiers against the Egyptian foe, endures as a symbol of both the individual and his country at their finest and most courageous.

But Sharon chafed while in political harness even as he had in the army. When Begin was elected prime minister in 1977, Sharon joined the first non-leftist Israeli government as housing minister, helping to found settlements throughout the West Bank. 

In Begin’s second term, Sharon was appointed minister of defense and, characteristically, used his new post to champion his grand vision for solving Israel’s strategic problems. His plan, if successful, would have placed the Lebanese Maronite Christians in control of their country and rid it of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that ruled its southern part as a state within a state. Although Sharon persuaded Begin to back a limited counter-offensive against terrorist positions in southern Lebanon, Sharon ordered the army to Beirut. Once again he took matters further than his superior had approved. Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies failed to seize power, although they did seek to settle scores with the Palestinians. The result was the Maronite massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. It was Sharon, however, who was blamed. He was wrongly accused of helping to plot the atrocity (a successful libel suit he later brought against Time magazine proved he had not); nonetheless, he should have anticipated that something this horrific could occur and would mire his country in an unwinnable conflict. A commission of inquiry demanded his resignation. Sharon’s political career appeared finished.

The specter of the Lebanon fiasco remained with Sharon for the rest of his life, much as the World War I disaster at Gallipoli haunted Winston Churchill for the rest of his long career. But like Churchill, Sharon would be granted another chance, and under similarly perilous circumstances.

By 2000, the Oslo Peace Accords that some believed would end the Arab-Israeli conflict had collapsed in a wave of Palestinian terror following PLO leader Yasir Arafat’s refusal of Israel’s offer of statehood that included almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem. With Israel again under siege, Ehud Barak’s Labor government faltered. Sharon, who had bided his time as a senior cabinet minister in various Likud governments and was by then the leader of his party, was poised for a comeback.

Once again, controversy encircled him. That fall, just as Arafat was preparing to launch a terrorist war of attrition, Sharon took a walk around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims. The Palestinians seized on this incident—intended as an act of reassurance to Israelis that he would keep Jerusalem unified—as a pretext for a conflict in which they were already engaged. Nevertheless, Sharon was widely and unfairly blamed for the intifada that followed.

Yet a few months later, Sharon was elected prime minister in a 2001 landslide. Once in office, he responded to the Palestinian attacks with the same decisiveness he had displayed as a general, ordering a counter-attack against terrorist bastions and eventually building a security fence to keep out the suicide bombers who had murdered more than 1,000 Israelis. Sharon’s moves squelched Arafat’s terror campaign. In 2003, his countrymen understood the left’s Oslo fantasy had resulted in a bloody failure and returned him to office in yet a second landslide election.

At the peak of his power and popularity, Sharon embraced yet another grand strategy. He might have sought to consolidate Israel’s position at a time when the George W. Bush administration had concluded that it was Arafat who had been the obstacle to peace, and not Israeli policies. Though he had just won an election by skewering his Labor opponent’s plan for a withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon now endorsed the same plan. Since most Israelis despaired of ever convincing the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state regardless of its borders (a conclusion that still holds sway in Israel), Sharon believed Israel should set its own borders without waiting for an agreement with the Palestinians. Ignoring the objections of a majority of his party and his cabinet, Sharon envisioned an initial withdrawal from Gaza, followed by a pullback from most of the West Bank (while retaining Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs close to the 1967 lines) in order to set borders behind which Israelis could safely await a peace treaty. 

To carry out this plan, Sharon set off what Israeli political reporters called the “big bang”—the implosion of Likud, whose members had voted against the Gaza plan in a referendum. To replace it, Sharon formed his own party called Kadima, to which the leading opportunists of both Likud and Labor flocked. He appeared ready to govern Israel from a new centrist base for the foreseeable future. With Bush’s approval (for both the withdrawal and the retention of the settlement blocs) Sharon implemented the first part of his plan in 2005, retreating from Gaza amid scenes of Israeli anguish and Palestinian celebration (the greenhouses left behind and purchased by wealthy foreigners expressly for the Palestinians were quickly destroyed, as was every other building, including all the synagogues left behind by the Israelis).

Before he could implement the second stage of his plan, Sharon suffered the stroke that ultimately took his life. His weak successor, Ehud Olmert, was overwhelmed by terrorist attacks from Lebanon that set off another short and unsatisfactory war along Israel’s northern border, a Hamas coup in Gaza, and the resulting barrage of missiles into southern Israel that convinced the country that Sharon’s plan had been a colossal error. 

Within three years, Likud was back in power, and four years later, the rump of Kadima (most of whose leaders had fled Olmert) was virtually destroyed in the 2013 elections that returned Benjamin Netanyahu to a second consecutive term as Prime Minister. The idea that Israel could have forced the Palestinians to accept Sharon’s proposed borders was given the lie by subsequent events. Thus Sharon’s last great strategy and the political realignment he had championed were both repudiated by developments that occurred during his long, and ultimately fatal, sleep.

The widespread notion—at least among Washington’s foreign policy analysts—that Sharon might have cut the Gordian knot of peace with the Palestinians if only he had lived is as much a myth as the idea that his toughness exacerbated the conflict. Both ignore the actions of the Palestinians. 

If Sharon’s life must be judged as a mix of success and failure, it must also be acknowledged that Israel’s enemies are as much to blame for one as for the other. Though deeply attached to the land of Israel, Sharon was a pragmatist and not an ideologue. Although always prepared to compromise on Israel’s borders, he was adamant on never risking his nation’s security.

If Sharon blundered and played his part in a brutal decades-long war, he must be judged in the context of the inevitable and necessary Israeli effort to hold its enemies at bay. It was not, after all, the bulldozer who placed Israel into a situation in its early years in which it was forced to respond to bloody cross-border terror (across, it should be noted the 1949 armistice lines whose restoration is still considered by American negotiators as the magical formula for peace). Nor did Sharon or Israel initiate the 1967 conflict that resulted in Israel winning the West Bank and Gaza in a purely defensive war. Nor did Sharon invent the terror that led to the first Lebanon war that he so badly bungled. Nor did he, despite the canard about the Temple Mount, incite the second intifada that devastated both Israel and the Palestinian territories and led to their division by a fence that no responsible Israeli government will ever dismantle. The Israeli settlements he helped build did not create the Arab war to destroy Israel, since they were in place long before the Jewish state had won the West Bank. Nor were murderous Palestinian terrorist attacks ever stopped by his decision to uproot settlements. To the contrary, Sharon’s Gaza plan appears to have only increased the Palestinians’ desire to reject the compromises Israel had offered. Peace requires more than great men such as Sharon to will its achievement. It demands two willing sides. As long as the Palestinians continue to seek the eradication of Israel, the conflict will continue.

Where Sharon can be faulted is in his incorrigible belief that all rivals, superiors, and even followers who questioned his judgment were fools whose opinions and orders he should ignore for the good of the country. There were times, such as his finest hour during the Yom Kippur War, when his belief in his own judgment was amply justified. There were others—in Lebanon and Gaza—when it was not. Recklessness and contempt for the norms of a democratic political system can be forgiven in a great general who brings victory to his nation, as did Sharon. But history is not as kind to political leaders whose grand conceptions, driven by their equally grand personalities, fail.

Sharon’s complex legacy is such that he may never assume a place in Israel’s pantheon of its greatest leaders, where Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin (saved from coping with the consequences of Oslo by the tragedy of an assassin’s bullet), and Begin live on.

Yet, as Ben Gurion noted, all nations at war need their bulldozers if they are to survive. As such, Ariel Sharon’s honored place in Israel’s history is forever assured. 

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About the Author

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine.