War hero, statesman, strategist and pragmatist, Ariel Sharon died just when the perpetually stalled Middle East Peace “process” could use his brand of decisiveness. Boldness and decisiveness, alas, are out of fashion, replaced by retreat into “process.”
Eulogists have scoured Mr. Sharon’s remarkable achievements and the matching contradictions, and some observe that his life was the stuff of Greek tragedy. To Israelis who remember his bravery, starting with the War for Independence in 1948, he was a paratrooper known as “the Bulldozer.” Others recall his dash across the Suez to encircle two Egyptian armies when the Yom Kippur War was hanging in the balance and regard him as the man who saved his country. Some cannot forgive him for failing to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps by Christian Phalangists. They call him “the butcher of Beirut.”
He fought for his country — in all of Israel’s wars — and tried to find the formula for a lasting peace in the region. He was capable of changing course, even late in life. As the minister of agriculture, he encouraged Israelis to establish settlements in what they regarded as their biblical ancestral land in the West Bank, but later pushed for the unilateral withdrawal of 25 settlements in the Gaza Strip (and a few in the West Bank) in 2005, when he concluded there was no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate peace.
He was tough, and he was stubborn. As Israel’s foreign minister, he had refused to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand when they met at Wye Plantation in Maryland in 1998 to “process” peace. He later said that he had spent years trying to kill Arafat and was not about to shake his hand.
For him, the safety and sovereignty of Israel were paramount. “The great question of our day,” he wrote in “The Warrior,” his 1989 autobiography, “is whether we, the Jewish people of Israel, can find within us the will to survive as a nation.” He drew on his own personal will to survive shots and slights that other men would not have. Shot in the stomach during the 1948 war, he recovered and returned to the battlefield. He took a grazing shot in the head in the dash across Suez. Few can forget the iconic photograph of a smiling and triumphant Mr. Sharon, with a white bandage across his forehead, standing with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, in his signature eye patch.
Ariel Sharon lent himself to iconography. A critic in Jerusalem observed that he was a man of dramatic images, “some biblical, some seemingly destined from the outset to serve as artistic motifs: the shepherd, hunter, general, wounded warrior (with Van Gogh-style bandage), devouring lion, shark, zombie.” Two art exhibits in Israel are devoted solely to him. He was a lion in a jungle of merciless predators.