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Let’s Remember the Dark Side of Ariel Sharon’s Legacy—and Bury ‘Sharonism’ With Him

As defense minister, he presided over disaster in Beirut, and as prime minister, over disengagement, not peacemaking

Gershom Gorenberg
January 13, 2014

In his death, Ariel Sharon has suddenly reentered our lives, like a long-repressed memory. Between his final breath and his funeral, on Monday afternoon, politicians of nearly all Israeli camps and the pundits who write as if they speak for the whole country will describe Sharon as a fallen giant of Israel’s founding generation. They’ll praise his battlefield courage and extol his accomplishments as prime minister.

This is the strange ritual of nations when they bury leaders—like overzealous morticians, making them look better in death than in life. I can suggest better ways to mark the passing of Sharon, finally, after so many years.

The first is a collective viewing of the 2008 film Waltz With Bashir, which portrays how writer-director Ari Folman set out to regain his own repressed memory of the summer of 1982, the summer of the First Lebanon War, when he was a young soldier—and especially his memory of the days he spent deployed outside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while Israel ’s Christian Lebanese allies were massacring Palestinians inside. Through Folman’s search, the film attacks Israel’s collective amnesia about the war, the massacre and then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.

In 1983, the Kahan Commission of Inquiry concluded that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for ignoring the clear danger of sending the Phalangist militia into the camps. In consequence, it recommended that he be dismissed from his position as defense minister. Prime Minister Menachem Begin carried out the letter of the recommendation, not the spirit: Sharon lost the defense post but remained in the Cabinet. That was the opening that allowed him to stay in politics and, eventually, to become prime minister.

But as Waltz shows, the massacre was only—if one can possibly say “only ” here—the most blatant horror of an unnecessary war. And it was Ariel Sharon’s war. It was his idea that Israel could use military power to rearrange the Middle East, that in a single stroke it could invade Lebanon, put the Phalange in government, and destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The war expressed the qualities that made Ariel Sharon who he was: recklessness, trust in force, and certainty that Israel could impose its will unilaterally. Other Israeli politicians—Ehud Barak comes to mind—have operated under the simplistic conception that Israel is involved in a chess game with its opponents. Sharon behaved as if he were playing alone, solving a chess problem, rather than playing a match. He was a solipsist with power.


Sharon showed these dangerous traits from the first years of his long military career. In the early 1950s, he began his ascent in the Israel Defense Forces as commander of cross-border raids in retaliation for Arab terror attacks in Israel. Sometimes he carried out orders; sometimes he exceeded them; historians still debate which he was doing in which case. He led the infamous October 1953 raid on the village of Qibya, in which his troops killed some 60 civilians. Sharon was the perfect man to implement the policy: The rationale was that force would deter further attacks. Instead, the result was escalation on the Jordanian and Egyptian borders, eventually leading to the 1956 Sinai War. Sharon did not learn the lesson.

Instead, he showed in that war that he could be reckless with his own soldiers’ lives. As commander of the paratroops, Sharon ignored orders and sent a battalion into the Mitla Pass—and into withering Egyptian fire. Thirty-eight Israeli soldiers paid with their lives for his impatience to glory.

So it went. In late May 1967, as the standoff with Egypt dragged on, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol insisted on giving more time to reach a diplomatic solution while his generals pressed him to go to war. Twice, after meetings with Eshkol, Sharon suggested to Yitzhak Rabin, then chief of staff, that the army seize power. (The source for this is Sharon’s own account to army’s history department, uncovered in 2004 by historian Ami Gloska.) Yet proposing to overthrow the elected government didn’t end Sharon’s military career.

Instead, he rose to become head of the IDF’s Southern Command. In January 1972, he expelled thousands of Bedouin from the northeast Sinai. The land was intended for Jewish settlement but again, it seems, Sharon was overeager. Following a secret IDF inquiry, he was reprimanded for “exceeding authority.” Those words could have been Sharon’s middle name. His last chapter as a general, the one eulogists will cite most, came during the Yom Kippur War. You can check the honesty of a eulogy by whether it also cites the constant clashes with commanders as he flouted orders.

All this turned out to be training for Sharon the politician. In his first Knesset term, as a member of the Likud opposition, he advised the nascent Gush Emunim movement on where to make illegal settlement bids in the West Bank. The first attempt ended with troops removing the settlers. Sharon, exploiting his parliamentary immunity, stormed through the melée, shouting at soldiers, “Refuse orders! Refuse orders!”

When the Likud took power, Sharon became its settlement czar. He was still thinking like a general, seizing hilltops, placing new settlements as forward positions between Arab communities. Tendrils of settlement would divide the West Bank and block creation of a Palestinian state. This was of a piece with his plan for remaking Lebanon once he became defense minister: He would simply move his pawns on the board and establish a new order. The ruinous success of his settlement strategy emerged in the Oslo process that he totally opposed: The fragmented bits of land under Palestinian autonomy were what was left between his tendrils.

When he became prime minister, in 2001, Sharon shocked Israel, and the world, by deciding to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The man who had insisted on holding the whole Land of Israel decided to build a security fence through the West Bank and declared he would carry out a withdrawal from parts of that territory as well. The warrior had changed direction, had accepted the need for compromise and peace, many people said.

This was a misreading. He called the pullout from Gaza “disengagement”—as in disengaging from the enemy to better lines. His design for the fence left the major tendrils in place. Sharon remained Sharon. He saw that even under George W. Bush, the U.S. government was pressing him to negotiate a final two-state agreement. His answer, as always, was unilateral action: He would evade negotiations and set Israel’s borders himself.


Sharon’s magnetism radiated from his assertion of Jewish power. One element of Zionism involved bringing Jews back into the political world, to make us actors in our own collective fate. Sharon took this element to the extreme: He embodied the fantasy of a historically weak people of being the only actors in their fate.

As a result, his gambits ended in political and moral disaster. Lebanon is just one example. His settlement tendrils, rather than protecting Israel, have entangled it in occupation. By leaving Gaza unilaterally, without negotiated security arrangements or a stable government to take Israel’s place, he created the vacuum that Hamas filled. Afterward, while Sharon lay comatose, his former lieutenants Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni abandoned Sharonism and came to terms with the reality of other actors, the limits of force, and the need to negotiate.

Which brings us to the second way to mark the passing of Ariel Sharon, after we restore our memory of who he really was. Secretary of State John Kerry has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, trying to shape the agreement that Israel and the Palestinians each desperately need for their future. Israel needs to cast aside the fantasy of being able to act alone that Sharon offered. It should seize this opportunity to negotiate seriously, and bury Sharonism with Sharon.


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Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. His Twitter feed is @GershomG.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. His Twitter feed is @GershomG.

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