The legacy of Ariel Sharon and the limits of unilateralism.
As Israeli journalists Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom ask in the beginning of their new book, Ariel Sharon: A Life, will Sharon be remembered as the man who laid the basis for resolving a 150-year conflict with the Palestinians? Or will future generations think of him as the man responsible for helping to create a terrorist-governed Palestinian state, for promoting the massive construction of settlements (many of which were likely to prove unsustainable), and for generating the growth of Hezbollah in Lebanon with a misbegotten war in 1982 that also stained him–and Israel–with the massacres in Sabra and Shatila? Considering how this extraordinary and controversial Israeli leader strode across the history of the Middle East over the past half-century, such a question cannot be definitively answered until the future of this region is settled.
Writing in the summer of 2006, with Hamas in control of Gaza and Hezbollah having provoked a conflict that has many in the international community questioning the logic of Israel’s response, one might be tempted to say that history’s verdict is already in, and it is not kind to Sharon. Indeed, looking through the prism of today’s events, Gaza is hardly a success story, having devolved into chaos and become a platform for attacks against Israel. Hefez and Bloom quote Sharon criticizing Shimon Peres during the first intifada in 1989 for calling for the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, declaring then that “if we leave, the terrorists will fire cannons and missiles on Sderot and Ashkelon [two Israeli cities just outside of Gaza], just as they did in Lebanon.” Sharon’s criticism at the time looks remarkably prescient, even though six years later he proceeded to pursue precisely the policy he had earlier criticized, and there has been rocket fire out of Gaza and into Israel ever since the withdrawal.
Similarly, Sharon’s plans for the remaking of Lebanon in the 1982 war succeeded in expelling the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from that country, but at the expense of a prolonged and expensive conflict in Lebanon that fostered Hezbollah’s emergence as a dominant force among Lebanese Shia. And now, in 2006, there is a danger that Hezbollah could emerge even stronger from the current war (unless, of course, it is seen as losing its status as a state within a state). Indeed, if Hezbollah remains unconstrained, just as it was prior to the war, and is being rearmed, then it and the radical Islamists will win not only in Lebanon but probably also among the Palestinians. Hamas undoubtedly will gain from such an outcome, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel will find it hard to act on the Sharon legacy.
Sharon hardly will be vindicated if his successors are not able to act on the logic of disengagement. But should Hezbollah be contained in Lebanon and less able to act independently against the Israelis, we could see the relatively moderate, secular forces in the Middle East begin to make a comeback, and Sharon’s plan for disengagement in some form may yet be salvageable. In this sense, the Sharon legacy remains, in many ways, contingent. Yet, as the history of the conflict–told through the life of Sharon–demonstrates, bold, unilateral moves can only take you so far. The only hope for lasting security and stability, and even peace, requires that all parties involved–Israelis, Arabs, and the international community–take on serious responsibilities. No single leader, even one as determined and confident in his rectitude as Sharon, can impose a solution.
Hefez and Bloom pull few punches on Sharon. The reader sees a man who is enormously self-confident; he cares little for the opinions of others, believes most Israeli political figures are small-minded and short-sighted, sees rules as inhibiting and applying to others but not himself, and is convinced that leaders must be prepared to take dramatic moves and that he alone is capable of taking the historic steps to secure Israel’s future. Here is a man who manipulated his colleagues, had little regard for the costs Arabs might pay if he was acting in the service of Israeli security needs (as he defined them), and paid little heed to others in the Israeli military when they opposed what he wanted. As a young commander in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Sharon often defied his superiors, but lucky for him, he always had important protectors. First, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and, later, Yitzhak Rabin were instrumental in protecting him. Ben Gurion believed that Sharon had an “unconventional mind” and was “a brilliant soldier.” Rabin, too, saw in Sharon a soldier who might cause problems with his superiors but who reflected the daring needed in a military like Israel’s–a daring he demonstrated in both the 1967 and 1973 wars.
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