Ariel Sharon, one of those great Israeli lives that was “present at the creation,” somehow has outlived himself, broken but breathing long after predictions otherwise, not unlike his years in the army and in politics.
Mystically, a soul – his soul, Ariel ben-Shmuel and Dvora – is never comatose, never in “a vegetative state,” to use that odd, cold phrase. One hopes that someone sang the old Zionist songs to him, one last time, as his father did in the 1920s, sitting on young Ariel’s bed in Kfar Malal agricultural moshav. He’d sing the lullaby “Me’al Pisgat Har HaTzofim,” “From Atop Mount Scopus,” in Jerusalem, “from your ruins I’ll rebuild you… Yerushalayim, I won’t move from here.”
He grew up during the British Mandate, during the Arab revolt that saw Jews massacred around the country, and while only 14, still a schoolboy, he joined the Haganah.
Years later, Michael Oren (before becoming ambassador) said having Sharon as prime minister was like “having Thomas Jefferson in the White House. He’s a founding father,” though others, such as journalist Zev Chafetz, thought Luca Brasi was a better analogy, referring to Don Corleone’s favorite enforcer in “The Godfather.”
Either way, Sharon was only 20 in 1948, a wounded soldier, perhaps too young to be a founding father, but surely a favorite son. David Ben-Gurion was the one who changed his surname from Scheinerman to Sharon, the region of the land where the young man grew up. And Menachem Begin (for whom Sharon later served as defense minister) took pride in the young Sabra since the Scheinerman family and the Begin family were old friends from the same Belarus shtetel. It was Sharon’s grandmother who midwifed Menachem Begin into the world.
Ben Gurion had Sharon lead a commando unit that would do quick retaliatory raids into Jordanian and Egyptian territory (what is today the West Bank and Gaza) chasing down terrorist units that had been plaguing the new state. Israeli cabinet member Naftali Bennett says via Facebook that “Arik Sharon is the one who shaped the IDF values that we are all familiar with today…. In the 1950’s, after the Independence War, many commanders from the dismantled Hagana and Palmach forces left the army for the great Zionist mission of settling the Land of Israel. The IDF was weakened and suffered a series of operational failures against Arab terrorism. The army had lost its confidence. Then Ariel Sharon, who was then a college student, was recruited to set up Unit 101. The idea was to establish a small elite unit,” specializing in quick, surgical attacks. They operated by Sharon’s code: The commander (Sharon) goes in front. The mission is accomplished or the same team goes out again the next night until it is. And no wounded soldier is ever left behind.
Each time Sharon was promoted, says Bennett, he “left a legacy” of these values throughout his battalions and brigades.
Uri Dan, an Israeli soldier and journalist who later became Sharon’s confidante, wrote that Sharon went first not only to inspire but for his intuition. He “had the natural gift of being able to make [his] way across an unknown terrain in complete darkness.” Moshe Dayan said, Sharon looks at a map “like a conductor studies a concert score.”
Dan recalled in his book “Ariel Sharon,” that when Sharon, “full of life, humor and energy, climbed into his jeep with his soldiers headed for the battlefield, I saw historical figures: the Jews fighting for their freedom against the Greeks, Romans… David confronting Goliath; the Judges of Israel; Gideon and Samson. Sharon came right out of one of those stories.”
Sharon loved those stories, himself. After the Six-Day War he introduced his son Gur, 11, to the newly liberated biblical landscape, to Jerusalem’s Old City and the Wall. It was father-son time that was all too brief: Four months after the Six-Day War, young Gur was killed, accidentally shot in the head by a friend who was playing with a loaded gun. (Sharon’s private life was laced with sadness; his first wife Margalit died in a car crash, and his second wife, Lily, Margalit’s sister, died of cancer.)
Sharon was driven by a Jewish sensibility, using expressions that are now almost quaint, “Is it good for the Jews?” Begin appointed him minister of agriculture, “minister of tomatoes,” joked his rivals, but as minister he helped launch more than 150 settlements, and some grew tomatoes.
After initially championing the settlements for their security value, Sharon changed his mind; the Jewish historical claim was more important than the security one, and considering how unconvincing the security claim is proving to be, maybe he was right.
After all, he said, “the security question is a temporary one and easy to debate, while the historical aspect, which is fundamental, is stronger than any other. The attraction of Eretz Yisrael [the classical Land of Israel, beyond modern boundaries] lies in Biblical stories, festivals, seasons and landscapes. Everything with us is history. The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, for example: no other people in the world possess such a monument, 4,000 years old… Jews nourished themselves on this love…. The historical argument was in fact the primordial question – of which the security argument was only a consequence.”
He loved finding old postcards that showed a map of Eretz Yisrael divided biblically among the tribes, or those pre-state postcards depicting “Judea-Samaria.” When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said he would not give up a single grain of sand to Israel because Egyptian land is sacred, Sharon admitted to “a profound jealousy,” that Sadat could say what he couldn’t.
Once, at the airport, after greeting an honor guard, Begin stopped at the Israeli flag and bowed. Watching it on the news, said Sharon, “I felt that the tone of the reporter describing the scene betrayed a note of mockery.” But later, at the return of part of Sinai, said Sharon, Sadat bowed before the Egyptian flag and kissed it while “the voice of the Israeli reporter covering the ceremony… was almost shaking with emotion. Where did we get this habit of deriding everything sacred in our 4,000 year history – the flag, our anthem, and even our land?”
Of course, few did more to ensure that Sinai would be Israeli than Sharon, who fought there in 1956, 1967, and 1973, each time with daring, each time barely skirting charges of insubordination for being too independently daring. His charge across the canal in 1973, circling the Egyptian Third Army, is still studied in West Point. During the Yom Kippur War a blood-soaked bandage was famously wrapped around his head, the commander putting himself on the line. Sharon was just about the only hero Israel had. The crowds sang “Arik, Melech Yisrael,” Ariel, king of Israel,” as in the peppy song about King David, “He lives and will rise again!” They crowds sang, even as Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan resigned in near-disgrace, held responsible for the lack of preparation before the war. Before the war, Sharon was almost drummed out of the army because of his warnings about the fallibility of the Bar-Lev line, Israel’s ostensible fortification at the Suez Canal.
In 1982, he was castigated as the “Butcher of Beirut” for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, of Palestinians by Christian Philangists, though Sharon never ordered it, nor did any Israeli participate in it. At worst, he had “indirect responsibility,” said Israel’s Kahan Commission. Arab cartoons depicted him with blood dripping from his teeth. Signs in Israel called him a “murderer,” a “child killer.” He was forced to step down as defense minister, staying on as Begin’s minster without portfolio.
The attacks inspired his supporters to only love him more, as he seemed to absorb the hate otherwise intended for the rest of Israel. Sharon could take the blame and bounce back. Wise guys said, if you don’t like him as a general, you’ll get him as defense minister. If you don’t like him as defense minister, you’ll get him as prime minister, and so it was.
His defiance delighted his people, even as he infuriated just about everyone else. As foreign minister, he swore he’d never shake Yasir Arafat’s hand, and he never did, not even during the 1998 Wye peace talks.
When in 2000, the Temple Mount became a chip in the peace talks, he took a walk on the Temple Mount, something he’d done before. “This is the only gesture in my power,” he said. He responded as a Jew. “I was just visiting the Temple Mount, the holiest place for Jews,” same as what he told his son Gur in 1967.
He wrote, “Freedom of access and religious worship would never be denied to Americans, Europeans, or Arabs in their own respective capitals and countries. It should never be denied to Jews in their one, eternal capital.”
His walk was accused of instigating the second intifada, though the George Mitchell Report on the intifada absolved him of responsibility. Commissions of investigation seemed to follow him around.
Soon after, in 2001, devastated by the intifada, Israel turned to him, electing him prime minister.
History will tell you the rest. How he ended the intifada, how the disengagement from Gaza left even his supporters calling it an emotional and political disaster, leading to thousands of rockets, a war with Hamas and many of the 8,000 settlers still not re-settled.
Four months after the disengagement, he suffered his first stroke. A few days after that, in January, came the second stroke.
He used to like to sing the old Breslov song, “The World is a Narrow Bridge,” with its chorus, “the important thing is not to be afraid.” It’s hard to imagine that his soul is afraid, even now.
Somewhere, Israelis will be singing, “Arik, Melech Yisrael,” king of Israel, he lives and will rise again.
It’s hard to believe that he won’t.