Sharon was larger than life as military, political leader
To understand Ariel Sharon is to understand the state of Israel — its dreams, it aspirations and its goals; to read Sharon’s personal history is to read the history of the Jewish state — surrounded by enemies past and present.
The military and political leader and the nation he so loved were inextricably tied by a sense of urgency to ensure Israel’s survival.
Sharon died Saturday at age 85 after eight years in a coma triggered by a major stroke while he was serving as prime minister. He spent most of that time in a hospital in Tel Aviv. Visitors were restricted because of a fear of infection.
But, his funeral Monday was a very public affair given the place he occupies in the hearts of many Israelis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Sharon as “first and foremost a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish people’s greatest generals. He was tied to the land; he knew that it had to be defended. He understood above everything our revival is our ability to defend ourselves by ourselves.”
And defend Israel Sharon did — to the consternation of the Palestinians and other Arabs in the region, to the criticism of the United Nations Security Council and even to the dismay of some Jews who saw nothing to be gained by the use of force.
The liberal daily newspaper Haaretz offered a telling portrait of the man whose name is synonymous with Israel’s military might.
“For all his flaws, Israel is poorer without leaders like Ariel Sharon,” the newspaper’s editorial said, noting that today the country lacks leadership which acknowledges “the limits of power, maintains its alliance with the U.S., displays courage in the territories and won’t be deterred by settlers.”
That characterization is obviously aimed at Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose hard-line stance in his dealings with the Palestinians, and his continued support for settlements on land that could be part of a future Palestinian state have drawn harsh criticism from many world leaders.
The Israeli leader’s view of the nature of Israeli-Arab relations and the future of a Jewish state next door to a Palestinian one has strained relations with President Barack Obama.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration is determined to forge a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
In an extensive obituary profile of Sharon published Sunday, the New York Times called the former military leader and prime minister “one of the most influential figures in Israel’s history.”
“In many ways, Mr. Sharon’s story was that of his country. A champion of an iron-fisted, territory-expanding Zionism for most of his life, he stunned Israel and the world in 2005 with a Nixon-to-China reversal and withdrew all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza,” the Times said. “He then abandoned his Likud Party and formed a centrist movement called Kadima focused on further territorial withdrawal and a Palestinian state next door.”
It is that change in attitude that made the late prime minister such a controversial figure, but it also has prompted a wider discussion in Israel, Europe and the United States about the best way to achieve lasting peace in that troubled part of the world.