As is true of most great generals, former Israeli Prime Minister and General Ariel Sharon was full of surprises. In the words of Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “No Israeli leader left behind such a paradoxical legacy as did Ariel Sharon.”
While the impact of many historical figures takes years to determine, the world has had eight years to think about the impact of Sharon as he lay in a coma. When the former military commander and political leader died on January 11, he was both praised and reviled by Israelis and others around the world.
Sharon, described by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “first and foremost, a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish People’s greatest generals in the current era and throughout its history,” championed a hawkish, territory-expanding brand of Zionism for most of his life. Considered by many to be a brilliant military strategist, the decorated Israel Defense Forces (IDF) general led the “David vs. Goliath” victories against the Egyptian army in the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He also defeated terrorist hubs that have plagued the state of Israel for much of its history. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Ariel Sharon’s life is “intertwined with Israel’s history, and his presence in its main intersections is recorded in its history books.”
With those victories came the spoils – the alleged excesses in the Lebanon War of 1982 and the opportunity to establish Israeli villages in places conquered in the wars – the settlements, and the man known as “Arik” played a major role in the latter. When Sharon was minister of agriculture in the first Likud government of Menachem Begin in the 1970s and 1980s, he ordered the building of many new West Bank communities.
Yet, as Halevi points out, “As Israel negotiates an agreement with Palestinians that would inevitably involve uprooting settlements, it is likewise faithful to the legacy of Sharon, the only Israeli leader to dismantle settlements – twice, in Sinai in 1982 and then in Gaza in 2005.” In the months before he slipped into a coma, Sharon stunned the world by giving up Gaza to the Palestinians and then forming the centrist Kadima party that opened the door to more concessions.
The forcible evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements in what is now Gaza left many people without homes or jobs. Since the evacuation, thousands of missiles have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. In Sderot, the closest town to the border, the Jewish National Fund built an indoor playground, because parents are afraid to let their children play outside. When Hamas was elected to be the ruling party in Gaza, Israelis began to question the wisdom of giving up that piece of land and wondering how a proposed Palestinian state in the West Bank would affect Israelis living between the two.
We can never know what would have happened if Sharon had not slipped into a coma. Would he have retaken the land that had been given away? Would he have made provisions for the displaced people? Would he have been in favor of dismantling the settlements in the West Bank, thus possibly paving the way for a potential three-state solution (Israel, Hamas and Fatah) or, worse, a Hamas takeover in the West Bank that left much of Israel surrounded by people intent on destroying it?
In the eight years since Sharon has been out of office, nothing has been resolved about Palestinian statehood or the way West Bank settlements would be handled if there were a Palestinian state in that area. While some pundits believe that the creation of a Palestinian state is critical to maintaining a democratic Jewish state that is seen favorably in the eyes of the world, there is a delicate balance between giving up land for peace and simply making concessions to an enemy bent on wiping Israel off of the map.
Ariel Sharon, who played a role in every stage of Israel’s development, knew that. Perhaps he would have had a logical solution.