The Magazine

Ariel Sharon's Legacy

From soldier to statesman, by way of most vilified leader in the world.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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And yet it is not because the old man went soft, or succumbed to a desire for world approbation, or finally acquired a humanitarian conscience, that the father of the settlements initiated withdrawal first from Gaza and eventually from most of the West Bank. Sharon never departed from his fundamental tenet: Israel's security comes first. And he was the man to determine and implement Israel's security requirements. For 30 years, Sharon believed that Israel's security was best served by Israeli settlements criss-crossing the West Bank. As prime minister he saw that in light of changing demographic realities and the savagery of Palestinian terrorism, Israel's security was better served by disengagement.

Perhaps the soldier-statesman can be faulted for not taking the plight of the Palestinian people to heart. But, whatever mysteries Sharon's heart harbors, such is the cunning of history that he became the first Israeli prime minister to openly endorse a Palestinian state.

Perhaps he can be criticized for failing to groom a suitable successor. But he certainly broke a severe logjam in Israeli politics, empowered the electorate to see the shape of a hardheaded, reasonable, pragmatic politics, and set the stage for the next generation of leaders to seize the moment and show what they are made of.

And perhaps he can be taken to task for failing to appreciate all of the opportunities provided by the gentler ways of diplomacy and negotiation. But the diplomats and negotiators now have an independent Palestinian Authority operating out of the Gaza Strip to deal with, as well as the outlines of a plan for withdrawing from most of the West Bank, thanks to Sharon's leadership.

SHARON HAS ALWAYS BEEN A FIGHTER--cocksure, courageous, charming, defiant, quick-tempered, duplicitous, amazingly resilient, and, above all, steadfastly focused on Israel's security. The story is told that in the 1950s, when he led the "101" commando unit, Sharon would, just before an operation began, order his communications aide to keep a certain distance so that if orders from headquarters to cease and desist arrived, they could not be relayed to him. The stories of Sharon keeping the law at a convenient distance could be multiplied. Perhaps no Israeli military officer was reprimanded more or subject to more commissions of inquiry than Sharon. At the same time, Sharon commanded the loyalty of his men, was admired for his warmth and sense of humor, and for 60 years' performed deeds, in and out of uniform, essential to protecting Israel from enemies sworn to its destruction.

Sharon is the last of the 48ers--think of Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Dayan--to occupy the commanding heights of Israeli politics. He belonged to the generation that was born and bred in Israel, that came of age loving the land and fighting in the War of Independence, that was proud of the Zionist dream, that fought hard and lived large, and that, after heroic military careers, governed the nation well into its sixth decade. The 48ers were not always the best of democrats, especially Sharon. And yet time after time, they, and Sharon in particular, rose up to defend their small, surrounded, war-torn, beautiful country, making it possible for Jews to build a free and democratic state in their ancestral homeland.

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He is the editor of The Future of American Intelligence.