Perhaps the saddest commentary on Ariel Sharon’s extraordinary life is the lengths to which the Israeli government went to assure his safe funeral.
The government beefed up military protection around Sharon’s ranch in the southern Negev where he was laid to rest this week. It warned Hamas against any rocket attacks and it deployed Iron Dome missile defense batteries nearby.
Such is the period we must put to the Sharon story. In his prime, he was considered one of Israel’s most strident hawks — deeply controversial and, to many, a man with blood on his hands.
Yet as prime minister, Sharon changed course. He endorsed the Roadmap for Peace process during the Bush years and ordered the removal of settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In fact, according to papers the Israel daily Haaretz is citing, he was prepared to make even deeper concessions on the West Bank before a massive stroke left him comatose for the rest of his life.
To thousands of Israelis in and out of the country, he was a hero.
Peace remains elusive. It’s not because Sharon didn’t try, though, and it’s not because he didn’t change. In the end, he did both, but it wasn’t enough.
For years to come, historians will pore over Sharon’s life, deciphering this mystery wrapped up in an enigma: Was he a man of war, or a man of peace?
We say he was both.
Clearly a warrior as a young man, Sharon commanded an elite special force after the War for Independence. Unit 101 was not afraid to cross borders and exact retribution for attacks on Israeli civilians, but Sharon sometimes invited world condemnation for his actions, including the bloody 1953 assault on the village of Kibya where 69 Arab civilians, including children, were killed as their homes were blown up. (Sharon always claimed he thought the dwellings were empty.) Nevertheless, “The Bulldozer,” as he became known, served notice on the Palestinian fedayeen fighters — there was a price to pay for attacking Israelis.
Of course, the whole world recalls the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by Christian Phalanage fighters, who left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians dead (the exact figure isn’t known). The attack was to avenge the death of Lebanon’s Christian president. Sharon, who was defense minister at the time, faced investigation by a commission of inquiry, which found he didn’t order the attack, yet still bore responsibility for it. He resigned soon thereafter.
But he returned from the political wilderness in the ’90s, seemingly as confrontational as ever. As Housing Minister, he took up residence in Arab East Jerusalem — itself a provocative gesture. In 2000, he visited the Temple Mount, which Palestinians used as their excuse for launching the Second Intifada.
Still, this wasn’t the same Sharon. Conservative, defense-minded, he nevertheless began looking for a peaceful resolution to Israel’s problems once he became PM.
“As one who fought in all of Israel’s wars, and learned from personal experience that without proper force, we do not have a chance of surviving in this region, which does not show mercy toward the weak,” Sharon himself said in a 2004 speech, “I have also learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land.”
Such an incredible turnaround for the man described as the architect of the settler movement. His change of heart, combined with his decision to withdraw from Gaza, contributed to his break with the Likud party.
Who knows what Sharon may have achieved had a stroke not ended his career — maybe peace, maybe not. We’ll never know.
We do know that Sharon became living proof that men, even the most intractable of men, can change their ways. If that is true, then today’s leaders can change, too, perhaps even reach the long-awaited peace between enemies.
The chance for change, that is the Sharon legacy.