For all his many accomplishments, and his comparatively few failures, the one thing Ariel Sharon will ultimately be remembered for is the Gaza disengagement plan, put into effect over the course of the summer of 2005. No event in his storied military and political career better illustrates the fighting spirit that drove Israel’s 11th prime minister to constantly push forward, or conveys his eventual realization that the best cause one can ever hope to fight for is peace.
It took him most of his life to figure that out – in fact, for decades, peace did not appear to figure into Sharon’s decision-making. Peace surely wasn’t on his mind when he joined the Haganah after high school, or at the battle of Latrun in the 1948 War of Independence. Unit 101, the elite military squad he formed in 1953, was explicitly engineered for the opposite of making peace – seeking retribution.
In Sinai in 1956, when he disobeyed orders and pushed toward the Mitla Pass, and when he turned a blind eye at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, peace wasn’t part of his calculation. He thumbed his nose at peace as a champion of the settler cause. Palestinians broke into a round of riots and terror after he visited the Dome of the Rock in 2000. Wherever Sharon went, it seemed, violence always followed.
There is no question Sharon undertook all of the above with Israel’s best interests at heart, but in the end, he realized that pursuing peace was the only way to ensure Israel’s future – that violence only begat more violence. And yet even as he underwent this fascinating metamorphosis, his essence remained unchanged: he continued to fight with the same unique combination of smarts and guts, and his patriotic drive remained strong. The only thing that changed was the way he channelled that energy.
Alas, Sharon was not allotted as much time to chase peace as he spent hunting security – he fell ill just months after the disengagement came to a close. It must have taken a toll on him, to watch Gush Katif erupt in near-civil war, residents and soldiers battling each other, a nation at risk of being torn apart – and finally, Palestinians blindly tearing down what Jews had worked so hard to build, then increasing the rocket attacks.
The stroke that left him comatose for eight years followed too soon after the disengagement drama for it to have been a coincidence. If it was all too much for Sharon, who could blame him?
Ariel Sharon didn’t survive disengagement, but Israel did, and in the course of that summer, the Jewish state’s path forward became clear. It was no longer enough to express a desire to make peace, at the right moment and with the right partner. The time had come to force peace to happen, even if that meant going it alone and offering painful sacrifices with no guarantee of reciprocation.
Sharon taught this final lesson to his people, then he was gone. For a man who lived his life with boldness, he saved the best for last.