Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke, accompanied by massive internal bleeding and exacerbated by blood thinners prescribed to him for a previous stroke. Although Sharon’s status is uncertain, two things are clear: First, if he survives, he will do so with limited cognitive and physical abilities. Second, his military and political career, which spans almost 60 years, is over. Obituaries are not written for the living, but this is not an obituary. It is, rather, a farewell of sorts to a great statesman. Sharon is one of the least understood and most dynamic leaders in modern history, and so, in a way, it isn’t about the man anyway, but the legend.
His detractors demonize him as a stubborn warrior bent on destruction. Critics and supporters alike called him “the Bulldozer,” the former in spite but the latter playfully, to mock the hard-headedness and unwillingness to negotiate with Israel’s enemies that characterized the majority of his 60-year career. He is despised by Arabs for the raids he led into Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s to punish PLO terrorists based within their borders – raids that wreaked devastation on many Arab villages.
Israelis, too, have mixed feelings about the Bulldozer. Some dismissed his cautious opposition to peace talks with the PLO in the 1993 Oslo Accords as evidence that he did not want peace. They admire him for his victories in Israel’s defense as a general, but harbor anger for his failures. The most controversial campaign of Sharon’s career is his planning of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which would become Israel’s “Vietnam”- a conflict that for almost 20 years sent Israeli soldiers to fight in a war of questionable necessity far from home.
But while Israelis are sometimes ambivalent, his conciliatory approach to the Palestinians, especially the Gaza disengagement plan that created the first step for the formation of a Palestinian homeland, has earned him his people’s trust. Indeed, many in the global community, including Europeans, Kofi Annan and some Arab leaders, have praised Sharon for his maturation from a relentless warrior to an aspiring peacemaker.
General Sharon had an important role in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, saved Israel from destruction in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and harried Yasser Arafat through Lebanon. But he finally realized that, as far as the Palestinian question is concerned, neither side can win militarily. The Palestinians certainly will never destroy Israel with rocks and suicide bombings, and all the F-15s and tanks in the world will not convince the Palestinians to give up their dream of a state of their own. Sharon concluded in his mid-70s that pragmatism must triumph over idealism, and that only through negotiations and painful concessions will both sides reach a lasting peace.
And so the story comes to an end. Lying incapacitated on a hospital bed, the Bulldozer’s engines have idled. King Arik – a designation Sharon’s admirers have taken the liberty of assigning him – who saved Israel from destruction, fought mercilessly against terrorist thugs and eventually evolved from a hawkish hardliner into a calculated compromiser, is at the end of his life. While Ariel Sharon’s stroke has ended his life as we know it, no malady will ever kill his dream of ending the conflict and eventually enjoying a neighborly relationship with the Palestinians.
An old army ballad says, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Goodbye, Bulldozer. Goodbye, my hero.
Neer Lerner is a senior political science and history major at UCSB.