Larger than life
Until last week, many Americans may have forgotten that Ariel Sharon was still alive because he had been in what his doctors called a “state of minimal consciousness” for eight long years.
But when he died over the weekend, suddenly Sharon was big news again. And what’s both interesting and discouraging about that is that 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 by a stroke.
There are several critical crises afflicting the Middle East right now, and none of them seem likely to be resolved any time soon, yet Israel’s never-ending fight to survive when surrounded by its enemies remains the most compelling story in the region.
In his day, the portly Sharon dominated the political discourse in Israel’s struggle to secure its borders and keep hostile Palestinians at bay. He was a larger-than-life figure who at times was both despised and adored by the Israeli people, depending on their own political proclivities.
What’s more, because of the way he sometimes dramatically changed his position, those who despised him and those who adored him were sometimes caught off guard.
In Saturday’s New York Times, Ronen Bergman, a political and military analyst for an Israeli newspaper, wrote 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 a controversial figure who, as Bergman pointed out, 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.
“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,” Bergman wrote.
“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,” Bergman continued. “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.”
In his time, Sharon was a member of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) and was a cabinet minister until 2001 when he unseated the incumbent prime minister, Ehud Barak. In Bergman’s estimation, “he was the right leader at the right time.”
Until then, he had strongly supported Israel’s much-disputed program of building new settlements in what had been Arab land (the West Bank and Gaza), a program that had alienated many Americans who otherwise were sympathetic to Israel.
The seemingly ruthless expansion of the settlements made it difficult for American political leaders to continue to support Israel unconditionally. And, needing the United States on his side if he was to achieve any of his goals, Sharon stopped pushing the settlement program, to the dismay of its 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, regrettably, there was much dirty work done. Sharon, a larger-than-life figure, did his share as he became an important part of Israel’s history.