Last week in this space, we said Ariel Sharon’s legacy was that he proved himself capable of change. So much so, he took the daring step of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, moving out the thousands of settlers there at great risk to his own political future.
We still think this will prove to be his greatest legacy. As we reported in our interview with J Street’s Alan Elsner published in the Jan. 9 edition, and as columnist Ben Cohen wrote in that same paper, Hamas is on the ropes. They’ve lost a critical benefactor in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which fell in a coup last year. Egypt has since closed supply tunnels to Gaza, limiting Hamas to firing rockets to get attention while Gazans increasingly tire of their autocratic rule.
If Hamas weakens, or even falls, then Sharon’s Gaza gambit could yet reap rewards for the latest peace process.
But as some of you have pointed out to us — strongly — Sharon’s legacy extends far beyond his steps as prime minister to achieve peace. No one can argue that his military moves as one of Israel’s leading generals saved the country from destruction. In other words, without Sharon the general, Sharon the politician would have had no chance to make peace in the first place.
And you know what? Those readers who have made that point to us — strongly — are right.
Sharon will always be a controversial figure, even among Israelis, but his exploits in the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars probably saved the Jewish state.
As we reported in last week’s front-page story, during the 1956 Suez War, Sharon defied his superiors’ orders when he launched a series of attacks on Egyptian positions near Mt. Sinai’s Mitla Pass. Though his advances, while costly in terms of casualties, they ultimately forced Egypt to retreat.
And Sharon had been retired from the army for less than two months when the Yom Kippur War started on Oct. 6, 1973, and he was recalled to active duty. Again defying orders, the bold general advanced behind Egyptian lines and across the Suez Canal. The maneuver worked, with his division separating Egypt’s second and third armies and effectively winning a war, which Israel had almost lost.
Even going back to the 1948 War for Independence, Sharon proved himself a courageous individual.
During the fighting at Latrun when his men were outnumbered and outgunned and were placed in an untenable situation thanks to moves by his superior officers (see “Arik,” the newly released biography by David Landau), Sharon kept his cool and engineered a withdrawal that enabled his small force to fight another day.
All this must be part of the Sharon legacy as well.
The impact of Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal may take years to manifest itself, and will continue to be dissected by historians and politicians alike, but there’s no doubt the achievements of Sharon the general, as well as every Israeli who took up arms for his or her country, literally saved the country. For that, Sharon deserves our gratitude. Shalom, Arik.