Ariel Sharon: Soldier, Strategist, Prickly Pear

by Cliff May

Ariel Sharon was an intrepid soldier and a brilliant military strategist. He was a sabra, a word used to describe those born in the land of Israel but which literally means a “prickly pear” — and he certainly was that, too.

He always believed that Israelis and Arabs, Muslims and Jews, could and should live as neighbors in Israel and in the region. But he understood, too, that there were those who rejected that view — those who rejected any Jewish or “infidel” presence in what they call “Muslim lands.” In Israel’s many wars, Sharon fought Iraqi, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian soldiers as well as Palestinian terrorists.

Sharon was a larger-than-life leader of the Israeli old school — often controversial to be sure. In his last years he went from right-wing Likudnik to founder of the middle-of-the-road Kadima party. Not long before he fell ill, he pulled out of Gaza — every Israeli soldier, settler, farmer; every synagogue and cemetery. It was a great experiment to find out if such a concession might lead to reciprocal Palestinian concessions. The experiment failed. All Israelis received in return for giving up any claims to Gaza were thousands of missiles fired — still being fired — at their villages, towns, and cities.

The 1982 massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila near Beirut was a stain on Sharon’s career. But too many people misunderstand — or misrepresent — what happened: Sharon killed no one; Sharon’s soldiers killed no one. What Sharon did wrong was to fail to recognize the danger the Lebanese Phalangists posed to Palestinians in Lebanon — and he failed to take steps to protect the Palestinians. They were his responsibility. No other nation in that region holds itself to such a standard. But that is expected of Israelis — and, more importantly, it’s what Israelis expect of themselves.

Also sometimes misconstrued: Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000. Was it provocative? Sure, Sharon liked to provoke. But was it that visit — the visit of an Israeli prime minister to a Jewish holy site in the Israel capital, which is adjacent to a Muslim holy site that the Israelis have given over to strict Muslim control — that caused the intifada? Clearly not. PLO/Fatah officials are on record that the intifada was pre-planned. Sharon’s visit was a convenient pretext to end diplomacy and launch a violent and ill-fated campaign against Israel.

I was privileged to meet Sharon on a couple of occasions. He was gracious, jovial, engaging. He was a fighter who was born and bred — and has now died — in a part of the world where fighting is necessary and “conflict resolution” remains rare.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.