When he died over the weekend, suddenly Ariel Sharon was big news again. But Israel’s situation, in terms of its long-term security in the volatile Middle East, appears no less tenuous than it was when he was sidelined eight years ago by a stroke.
Sharon had once dominated the political discourse as Israel struggled to secure its borders and keep hostile Palestinians at bay. He was a huge figure, literally and figuratively, who at various times was both adored and distrusted by the Israeli people.
And, because of the way he sometimes dramatically abandoned one position in favor of its opposite, those who despised him and those who adored him were sometimes caught off guard.
Ronen Bergman, a political and military analyst for an Israeli newspaper, wrote in Saturday’s New York Times that “politics, to Ariel Sharon, was like a Ferris wheel, ... but he didn’t make do with just staying on the wheel; he did all he could to climb to the top and stay there.”
He was not above playing fast and loose with the facts if doing so would augment his reputation or prevent it from being sullied by his critics, Bergman observed.
And he offered this example: “Even though the operations of the counterterrorism unit he commanded back in the 1950s (known as Unit 101) never actually reduced the level of terrorist attacks, Mr. Sharon managed to shape the way it was portrayed as if he and his commandos had rescued the nation from chaos.”
And this one: “Mr. Sharon devoted similar efforts to perpetuating the myth that it was he, as commander of an armored division, who saved Israel from sustaining a devastating defeat in 1973. He ordered the tapes of his division’s radio messages hidden in a secret location so that he could speak about his feats without allowing others to examine the facts.”
Sharon was a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and was a Cabinet minister until 2001, when he defeated the incumbent prime minister, Ehud Barak. And for all Sharon’s shortcomings, in Bergman’s estimation “he was the right leader at the right time.”
He had once strongly supported Israel’s extremely controversial expansion of new settlements in what formerly was Arab land (the West Bank and Gaza), a program that had alienated many Americans who otherwise were sympathetic to Israel.
The seemingly ruthless settlements program complicated matters for U.S. political leaders who wanted to continue supporting Israel unconditionally. So, needing the United States on his side, Sharon stopped pushing the settlement program, to the dismay of his supporters.
“His career was defined by doing the dirty work that was necessary for the state of Israel both to be born and to survive,” Mark LeVine, professor of contemporary Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, told National Public Radio on Saturday.
And there was a lot of dirty work — LeVine’s term — done. Sharon, a larger than life figure, did his share as he became a vital part of Israel’s history.