By Larry Gordon
Ariel Sharon epitomized the image of the cunning and mighty Israel military man. It made such an impression on me so long ago. I recall the black-and-white photograph of him on the front page of the New York Times. It was probably after the Yom Kippur War when Israel battled back, came from behind, and enjoyed a decisive triumph of an enemy bent on her destruction.
Sharon’s face looked worn and battle-weary. He wore a bandana around his forehead as he rode in a military vehicle, probably inspecting the positions of his troops. Or maybe he was in the midst of overseeing the withdrawal of his men from the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal after being begged by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not to crush the Egyptian Third Army, which Israel had a perfect and absolute right to do.
Perhaps it was there in that photo that Sharon received his first taste of the fleeting popularity that comes along with capitulation and the demonstration of weakness. And now, three decades later, as Sharon passes on after eight years in a comatose state following a stroke in 2006, Israel finds itself struggling with that same dilemma.
Can Israel, from its position of vastly superior strength, afford to be magnanimous to what everyone can clearly see is an implacable enemy avowed to undermine and destroy?
More than anyone else, more than Rabin or Peres in Oslo, more than Begin with Sinai or any other leader who attempted to demonstrate that perhaps a different direction was possible with her Arab neighbors, it was Ariel Sharon who took the greatest gamble and lost terribly. And today, he is not being remembered by world leaders because of the great battles that he won or because he so ably and proudly represented the fighting spirit of Israel. Instead, officials in Europe and here in the U.S. are remembering the greatness of Ariel Sharon for his failures.
Chief amongst those debacles is the forceful removal of Jews from their homes in Gaza/Gush Katif in 2005. In this, he followed a number of Israeli leaders who had doubts about the rightness of Israel’s position, despite its military and moral strength. Sharon—just as those before him—was a great leader, but it is unforgiveable that he made the decision that it was worthwhile to sacrifice Jewish communities in order to dispel the doubts being articulated by a slanted world about the Jewish desire to live in peace.
In 2005, with the “Disengagement” from Gaza, he severed his ties to the settlement movement. Gush Emunim, the religious arm of the movement, Sharon once noted, had seen him as “the Messiah’s donkey,” or the beast upon which their salvation would arrive. After that withdrawal in August, which was right around Tishah B’Av, he appeared at the UN. Addressing the General Assembly in September, in the sixtieth year after the founding of the United Nations, he drew great applause: “I stand before you at the gate of nations as a Jew and as a citizen of the democratic, free, and sovereign State of Israel, a proud representative of an ancient people,” he said. “I was born in the Land of Israel, the son of pioneers—people who tilled the land and sought no fights—who did not come to Israel to dispossess its residents. If the circumstances had not demanded it, I would not have become a soldier, but rather a farmer and agriculturist. My first love was, and remains, manual labor; sowing and harvesting, the pastures, the flock, and the cattle.
“I, as someone whose path of life led him to be a fighter and commander in all Israel’s wars, reach out today to our Palestinian neighbors in a call for reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict, and embark on the path that leads to peace and understanding between our peoples. I view this as my calling and my primary mission for the coming years.”
Anita Tucker, who along with her children and grandchildren was forced to leave Nezer Hazani in 2005, sent in the following comment about Sharon. “If ever a berachah had meaning, it is today ‘Baruch Dayan HaEmet!’ He who had the potential of continuing to do great things for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael instead trampled viciously the most basic moral values of a moral nation. He trampled and smothered totally the values of truth, he trampled the values of tzedek, and he trampled values of chesed as if they were worthless cigarette butts or grotesque intimidating insects. Baruch Dayan HaEmet!”
Shortly after Chanukah 2006, Sharon was felled by a stroke. I was still in Israel at the time and was working on putting out an issue of this paper, trying to get a handle on what to report about Sharon’s condition. At the time, representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office were saying that it was a very serious situation. Doctors from Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem would emerge from time to time to say that Sharon’s condition was grave and to announce the time of the next update on the situation.
As the readers know, Sharon was a big man—sometimes carrying over 400 pounds on his frame. He was already 77 years of age and had been treated previously for a combination of maladies. Medically speaking, a cerebral episode like the one that Prime Minister Sharon experienced does not occur in a vacuum. My nonprofessional opinion was that it was brewing in his head for a long time and certainly seemed to impact on his judgment.
This was the only way I could ever explain to myself the sharp political reversal by Ariel Sharon on matters of Israel’s vital control of the land. Something changed in his head, and I just don’t understand why people around him did not see the changes he was displaying that way. No one was a greater advocate of Israel’s settling Judea and Samaria than Sharon. He knew that the Arab enemy within Israel’s midst was a tiger that would never and could never change its stripes. That is being proven to us still, every day up until the present.
So something changed in Sharon, and less than six months after the painful and repugnant Gaza withdrawal, he was unconscious in a hospital and would more or less remain that way for the next eight years, until last Shabbos.
At the UN that day in 2005, the man who for years had been scorned by the international community, depicted as a butcher and a bloodthirsty leader, drew applause from all corners of the room. Three and a half months later, before revealing the full extent of his plans, he fell, terminally, from consciousness.
Since then, 13,000 missiles have been fired at Jewish communities throughout Israel from the Gaza Strip—scores have been killed and wounded. On Monday, as he was laid to rest at his ranch not all that far from the Gaza border, the IDF had to move the advanced missile-defense system known as Iron Dome nearby in order to protect the gathering dignitaries from an onslaught of Hamas missiles, their version of the 21-gun salute.
We remember Sharon proudly nevertheless—blemishes, mistakes, and all. v
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