Ariel Sharon’s career has always been extraordinary, and it comes to an end just as he was proving more extraordinary than ever. On the face of it, he struck out on his own, whether on the battlefield or in politics, even disobeying orders if he judged it right to do so, a lone ranger rather than a party man. Actions for him spoke louder than words. Rising from an eager young volunteer for dangerous assignments to the rank of divisional general and finally defense minister, he took an inspiring part in every one of the wars that its enemies have unleashed on Israel since its foundation in 1948. His courage went hand in hand with his sense of mission. Israelis of that founding generation held in common the belief that they have the right to live in security, and since they were denied that right, they would have to fight for it.
Sharon went further. It was pointless, he maintained, to suppose that the Arab world would one day suddenly admit to error about Israel, and negotiate a genuine peace. The Oslo Accords seemed to him based on illusion. When he had the chance, he pushed ahead with extensive building of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza. This was not simple imperialism, as his critics charged. The Arabs, the Palestinians especially, had to understand that there was a price to pay for aggression, a price that would rise until they understood that the costs outweighed any gains. On the basis of that calculus, Sharon cleared PLO terrorism out of the Gaza Strip and out of Beirut in 1982. As prime minister these past five years, he proved his point conclusively, marginalizing Yasser Arafat, that perpetual prime promoter of aggression, and closing the intifada down in anti-climax.
“Should the Palestinians
at last acquire a state of their own,
Sharon will have done more
to bring it about than any Palestinian,
Arafat included, ever did.”
Much of the world had long lost interest in Israel’s right to a secure life, and perceived only the costs the Palestinians were inflicting on themselves for their unremitting aggression. It became commonplace to demonize Sharon as a right-winger, to liken him to Hitler, and to stage trials for his alleged war crimes. In the end, he had a riposte as unexpected as it was magnificent. Security, he now concluded, necessitated a two-state solution. Israel would build a security fence, withdraw its settlements from Gaza and the more exposed parts of the West Bank, and leave Israelis and Palestinians each to conduct their business as they see fit. Should the Palestinians at last acquire a state of their own, Sharon will have done more to bring it about than any Palestinian, Arafat included, ever did.
Such a program was not a reversal of his lifelong view, but an imaginative fulfillment of it. Putting it in place, he oversaw the reluctant expulsion of some 9,000 Israelis from Gaza, he broke with his political colleagues, and founded a new party, Kadima, whose essential purpose is to make the two-state solution a reality, difficult as this will prove for his successors. This lone ranger had the authority to achieve so huge a political shake-up because most Israelis knew from experience that they could entrust their security to him. His departure from the scene at this perilous moment is a reminder that history is a matter of great individuals and courageous choices.