Ariel Sharon has been gone from the political scene for a decade, but his death has unsurprisingly prompted a variety of appraisals from various quarters, some of them sober, some more fanciful. From my perspective, the most important fact about Sharon is that he was more willing than any other Israeli leader to uproot settlements – and he held that title by a substantial margin.
Sharon was the man who, under the terms of the Camp David accords with Egypt, dismantled the Israeli settlement at Yamit. That settlement was supposed to be evacuated and handed over the Egypt in exchange for $80 million. There was fierce right-wing opposition to the handover, including by substantial figures within Likud, not just by fringe figures further right. Opponents infiltrated the settlement and barricaded themselves within to try to prevent the handover. Sharon, likely on his own authority, destroyed the settlement instead of handing it to the Egyptians. While Sharon was not Prime Minister for the Yamit evacuation, he effectively seized responsibility for the decision by the manner in which he executed it.
And he is the man who, as Prime Minister, unilaterally pulled out of Gaza. Again, there was fierce right-wing opposition, opposition that split his own party and impelled Sharon to form a new party over which he would have more decisive control. Once again, Sharon ripped up the settlements from the foundations before evacuating.
Sharon was, of course, one of the principal champions of the settlement enterprise. He devised the master plan for building deep in the West Bank; he once said that “the fate of Netzarim [a Gaza settlement] is the fate of Tel Aviv.” But the entirety of the Israeli mainstream, from Shimon Peres on rightward, is implicated in the settlement enterprise, and the settlements expanded more dramatically under Labor governments than under Likud. Sharon is less-notable as a settlement-builder than he is as a settlement-demolisher. He didn’t demolish that many settlements – but no other Israeli leader has demolished any, at least not without Sharon’s direct involvement.
Does that mean Sharon was, ultimately, a “man of peace?” I don’t really know what that phrase means, but if it means anything it can’t plausibly apply to Sharon. Sharon was, consummately, a man of war. I don’t mean this to cast aspersions or to praise; that’s just an accurate description of who he was.
But his willingness to uproot settlements, in the Sinai, in Gaza – and, I firmly believe, had he remained Prime Minister, in the West Bank as well – does say something distinctive about him. It says that he considered himself to have the absolute right to make such a decision.
That is not a common quality in Israeli leadership. It is very easy to find Israeli leaders who will say that there needs to be a withdrawal of such and such dimensions, or that “everybody” knows that only this or that area is within the consensus, while this other place is outside. It is very easy to find Israeli leaders who say that Israel needs a peace agreement, and who express a willingness to make “painful sacrifices” for such an agreement. But the number of Israeli leaders who would actually issue and execute the order to remove settlements outside of the consensus is vanishingly small. Rabin, Netanyahu, Peres, Olmert, Barak – many of them signed pieces of paper promising various things. None of them issued the order to withdraw.
Sharon was not a peacemaker. He was a unilateralist. He didn’t want to sign pieces of paper; he wanted to give orders. He was a commander. And he believed he had the complete authority to issue a command to retreat, as well as to advance, and would not be intimidated from issuing such an order by religious, ideological, or emotional blackmail.
That kind of utter confidence in one’s own, personal authority can be extremely dangerous – Sharon was routinely insubordinate, had little use for democratic norms, had essentially no respect for any authority but his own. But it can also be useful, particularly when a country must do something it doesn’t want to do.
And I’m not sure there’s anybody in Israel today who has it. Indeed, the only other Israeli leader who comes to mind when I think about that quality is Ben Gurion, who of course was sui generis.
If Israelis are going to mourn the loss of any quality with the passing of Sharon, it shouldn’t be his spirited generalship, nor, certainly, his insouciance about brutality – nor should it be some mythical “peacemaking” quality. But that quasi-monarchical numinous quality, the willingness to be the nation, and act on its behalf with total confidence, is, for all its dangers to democracy, worth mourning.