Ariel Sharon lived right through the heroic age of Israel and in many ways he was its permanent representative. Born in 1928 in the days of the British Mandate, he grew up in the certain knowledge that there would have to be a fight for independence and quite possibly even for survival. In the present age, our politicians blather about sending signals and crossing red lines and involving the United Nations but for Sharon the whole point of fighting was victory, to crush the enemy so that it wouldn’t be necessary to do it again. Like Achilles, he had to have his way or he’d stay in his tent.
As a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph I covered the Yom Kippur war of October 1973. The Egyptians had overcome the Israeli line of defense along the Suez Canal. The Egyptian Third Army had taken up positions in the southern Sinai desert that they now occupied. Catching a rumor of a coming counter-attack, I went down to the Canal. I was alone under a blue sky, wondering if I had made a mistake. Out of nowhere, Israeli engineers arrived and with tremendous speed threw a pontoon bridge over the Canal. Then the tanks appeared, and there on the open turret of one of them sat Sharon. An Egyptian sniper could easily have shot him. No helmet. Looking as though off to a sporting occasion, he was like one of the great inspiring generals of the past who led their troops into battle.
The tanks rumbled across, and in a very short time Sharon and his armored column had cut off the retreat of the Egyptian Third Army and was poised to move on Cairo. The politics of the Cold War imposed a cease-fire that saved Egyptian face, and meant that Israel would one day have to fight for survival all over again. In 1982, Sharon as minister of defense took it on himself to ensure Israel’s future by driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon and installing a friendly Christian government in that country. This was as bold in conception as the earlier crossing of the Canal. A Christian militia then massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. Again in the politics of the Cold War, this atrocity was enough to deprive Sharon of any victory and perpetuate the Israeli-Arab confrontation.
Israelis nonetheless were to elect him prime minister. His decision to uproot and evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip was a final boldness. The supposition was that Palestinians would not want to fight if their demands were met. It hasn’t worked out, perhaps someone or something will always stop it working out and Israel will have to fight all over again, but it was evidence of greatness that at the end of his life Sharon tried for more than military victory.