Ariel Sharon died one year ago today, on January 11, 2014. It seems that he’s been gone for much longer, no doubt because he was in a coma after January 2006.
This first anniversary of his death—for Jews, his first “yahrzeit”—comes as Israel enters an election campaign. What would Sharon make of it all?
For one thing, he would notice that the centrist party he created, Kadima, did not long outlast him. It could not form a government after the last election, in 2009, grew weaker in opposition, and has now collapsed. Sharon created Kadima when he abandoned Likud (or as he would have said, Likud abandoned him) in late 2005 over the issue of withdrawing from Gaza. After Sharon’s strokes and incapacitation, Kadima nevertheless won a smashing victory in Israel’s March 2006 election, and even in the 2009 election it got one more seat than did Likud. And now it is nearly gone, with a small rump left to figure out whose coalition or whose party to join. Perhaps if Sharon had led the party for a few more years it would have become a fixture, but today he would find Israeli politics featuring the old Labor/Likud rivalry again. He would no doubt take some satisfaction in seeing his old party rival, Bibi Netanyahu, feeling the heat not only from Labor but from within Likud—from those on the “farther right” in Likud who made Sharon’s own life miserable and who back in 2005 were led by … Bibi Netanyahu.
Sharon would find U.S.-Israeli relations today to be far worse than he left them. He had experienced them at their best, when he partnered with George W. Bush, but also seen them in times of great tension—in 1990 when George H.W. Bush was president, Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister, and Sharon was housing minister. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were then blaming Israel for the stand-off in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—and delaying loan guarantees Sharon needed to build housing for the Soviet Jews who were arriving by the tens and then hundreds of thousands in Israel. He might see today’s arguments as tame by comparison, but he would not be surprised to learn that relations are not always close and sweet.
He would surely express no surprise at the deadlock in negotiations with the PLO. Getting out of Gaza was, most of his closest collaborators believe, step one in setting Israel’s borders. Step two might have been a pullback of settlers (but not the IDF) to the security fence that Sharon built to stop terrorism. Sharon had no faith in the ‘peace process’ and believed Israel should act when that process failed to move forward. If peace came, in ten or twenty or fifty years, that would be fine; meanwhile, Israel would have semi-permanent and defensible borders. Sharon viewed the settlements not as a religious duty (to occupy all of the Biblical “Land of Israel”) but as a security measure meant to widen Israel’s narrow waist and to secure its hold on Jerusalem. The fate of the smaller, farther-flung settlements and outposts was of much less interest to him, and he would have agreed with the current Israeli policy of constraining growth in them while building energetically in the major blocks and in Israel’s capital.
Sharon was, of course, a soldier, and he would have been delighted at Israel’s progress in military technology in recent years—for example the “Iron Dome” systems that shot down so many Hamas rockets last summer. He would no doubt have taken some satisfaction in seeing Israel’s old enemies in Syria and Iraq collapse into chaos, and seeing Egypt’s government turn so strongly against Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The threat of major ground conflicts with Arab states, like the wars in which he had fought in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, is now entirely gone.
What he would have done about Iran’s nuclear program cannot fairly be guessed. But it is fair to say that he would have taken immense satisfaction that his “tiny small country,” as he once described it to me, now emerges as the only really strong state and reliable American ally in the entire region. He was born in 1928 when the British were reneging on the Balfour Declaration; was a boy during the Holocaust, when the British closed the doors to Jewish emigration to Palestine; was 20 years old when the state came into existence and was attacked that same day. He saw it threatened by war and terror in every decade of its life. Yet the Jews built an army that is unmatched in the region, in part thanks to Ariel Sharon, and a state that survives and thrives despite the challenges and the dangers it faces. The old tank driver would now be looking at the region with the sardonic smile he so often wore.