The obituaries of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon touch on virtually every aspect and character trait—from the physical courage, military acumen, and political wisdom to the sense of humor, warmth, and prodigious appetite—of the nearly legendary statesman and soldier who died today at the age of 85. His was one of the exemplary lives on the 20th century, and the last of Israel’s founding generation who nonetheless understood that much remained to be done. For instance, in the New York Times obituary, Ethan Bronner quotes the former prime minister in an April 2001 interview with Haaretz: “The war of independence has not ended … The end of the conflict will come only when the Arab world recognizes the innate right of the Jewish people to establish an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. And that recognition has not yet come.”
Other notable reminiscences of Sharon include Benny Morris writing for Tablet, where there’s also a brief interview with former Sharon aide Raanan Gissin. The Times of Israel features a solid recap of Sharon’s career, while Benjamin Kerstein, writing at the Tower, explains how Israel will long live under the shadow that Sharon casts over it. Tom Gross has a thorough round-up at his Mideast Dispatch website, and Jeffrey Goldberg writes of his several meetings with Sharon through the years. “Once, we captured a Lebanese fishing boat,” Sharon told Goldberg. “We filled it with Lebanese food and newspapers and we put our soldiers in it, dressed as Arabs, who spoke Arabic. And they landed on the beach in Gaza, and the Palestinians hid them. They thought they were their people, fugitives. And we were pursuing them ourselves, making believe they were hunted terrorists. The Palestinians took them to meet an important group of terrorists in the northern part of the Gaza district. And when they met them our soldiers killed them. Then they were evacuated out of Gaza. You have to think of things like that. You have to be creative.”
Former U.S. policymaker, Robert Danin, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, remembers that Sharon “began every meeting I ever attended with U.S. officials with a greeting that always made me chuckle—‘You are mostly welcome.’” Danin writes that Sharon’s greeting not only “revealed his flawed English,” but also “reflected his ambivalence and apprehension about American efforts.” Sharon recognized, writes Danin, “that the United States was the best friend Israel had ever known. But he was ever suspicious that Washington might pressure him into something he did not want to do.”
And yet Seth Lipsky writing at the Daily Beast (another Lipsky tribute for Haaretz is behind a paywall), and noting “Sharon’s astonishing power to talk,” explains how Sharon and George W. Bush “set an example for a relationship between an Israeli premier and an American president that one can but hope for today.”
Indeed as Elliott Abrams writes for Commentary, in what is perhaps the most moving tribute to Sharon, Bush and Sharon were personally affectionate. “We need you healthy,” Abrams remembers Bush telling Sharon.
“Don’t work too hard. Keep rational hours! Watch what you eat. I want to see a slimmer Sharon! We need your leadership and your courage to get to peace.” Sharon replied that the two of them can accomplish many things; “I have no doubt I can move forward,” he said, “as long as the terror stops; Israel will not cooperate with terror.” That was the last time they spoke.
On January 4, 2006, at his ranch, Sharon suffered the massive stroke from which he never recovered. His death was expected, and we in Washington laid plans for the funeral; the president intended to go. I wrote a eulogy for the president to read at the funeral, and kept the final version, worked over by the speechwriters, with me over the next few months so it would be handy when Sharon died:
Ariel Sharon also knew this land as a soldier. He enlisted in the struggle for a Jewish homeland as a boy … fought in all of Israel ’s wars … and was severely wounded in battle. Over an army career, he became familiar with every inch of the terrain. He knew how high the hills were … how broad the rivers … where enemies would be likely to hide or strike. And knew he that the land he loved needed both swords and plowshares to prosper in an environment always harsh and often hostile. Ariel Sharon was a brilliant general—and led Israel to some of its most celebrated victories. His experience also taught him the costs of war. In his autobiography, he wrote that “at the age of twenty, most of my friends were dead.” Because he understood these costs, he believed so deeply in keeping Israel strong. Because he understood these costs, the man who made his reputation in battle would also leave his mark as a peacemaker.
In his pursuit of peace, Prime Minister Sharon proved as daring and resourceful as he had been as a general and tank commander. As leader of his nation, he made decisions that caused him great personal pain—and that he knew would be unpopular with many who had been his closest supporters. Yet he stood by his decisions, for this warrior did not dream of more victory in battle; he dreamed of peace for the people he led. And when he committed Israel to a new plan for peace, he did so on the same terms that he had insisted on throughout his life – from a position of strength.
Bringing peace to his people was his life’s work, and Ariel Sharon kept at it up to the moment of his stroke. His energy and determination were a source of inspiration to men many years his junior. As the Scriptures say of Moses, his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.