Warrior, Farmer, Leader

Reflections on the flawed-but-unmatched legacy of Israel's Ariel Sharon.

Kevin Frayer-Pool/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer-Pool/Getty Images

Love him or hate him, Ariel Sharon was a stunningly consequential, larger than life, and historic figure the likes of whom we will not see again. For those Palestinians, Arabs, and even Israelis who will never forget or forgive his transgressions, that’s just as well. Still, Sharon’s passing highlights the troubling reality of a region without leaders. This isn’t so much reflected in the comparison of what Sharon accomplished to what little has been achieved by current politicians in the Middle East; Sharon was far too controversial for greatness. Rather, it is reflected in the thought of what leaders of Sharon’s stature, authority, and power might be able to do for the Middle East today if they had the necessary skill, strategy, and partnerships.

We face a regional leadership vacuum: In Israel, younger leaders lack the credibility of their predecessors. Among the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas may have the desire to make peace, but he does not have the power. He’s also 78, and it is not evident what figure of national prominence could succeed him and unite a divided Palestinian polity. And in the Arab world, you would be hard-pressed to identify a single leader of vision and capacity.

You might say that we’re rudderless. In contrast, Sharon — for all his flaws — could steer the ship that was his country, and particularly as prime minister, he did so boldly.

I met Ariel Sharon for the first time at a Druze wedding feast outside of Haifa in the summer of 1973, a few months before the October war. He was much thinner and more agile then and bounded out of his Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeep bantering in Arabic, plunging into the crowd of Druze and Israeli Arabs who had gathered to greet him. The bride’s family was honored he had come, and Sharon seemed as comfortable there as he might have been at a Jewish wedding in Tel Aviv.

His appetite was already legendary. My wife Lindsay and I watched him devour the heaping platters of rice and steaming lamb — including the brains, of course, which we and Sharon, as guests, were offered. Years later, at meetings with various prime ministers, I’d watch Sharon consume hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches with such abandon that I wondered even then about his life expectancy.

Even more legendary at that time was Sharon’s image as a bold, courageous, and somewhat reckless warrior. His battlefield exploits in crossing the Suez Canal in October 1973 were well-known, as were his grand schemes to use the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon to push the Syrians out, make the Lebanese Christians allies of Israel, and force the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into Jordan, and convert the Hashemite Kingdom into a Palestinian state.

These schemes were as nutty as they were dangerous; certainly, the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Israelis who died in the course of them paid dearly.

As it turned out, an Israeli state commission charged Sharon with personal* responsibility for allowing Christian militias to massacre hundreds of Palestinian innocents in Sabra and Shatila. He resigned as minister of defense. As for his schemes, the Palestinians didn’t end up in Amman but instead went to Tunis. Sharon, it turns out, produced the very circumstances he had sought to avoid. Stripped of a military option and stunned by the First Intifada, Yasser Arafat ended up in a political process that brought him to where Sharon didn’t want him: the West Bank and Gaza.

There may not be second acts in American politics. But Sharon’s rise to prime minister — a move few thought imaginable, given his role in the 1982 war and his bulldozing personality — revealed that there are in Israel. His election in February 2001 over Ehud Barak — the largest electoral landslide in Israel’s history — reflected Barak’s unpopularity and the public’s fear and anger at Palestinian suicide attacks during the Second Intifada. It also demonstrated the desire for strong, experienced, and tough leadership from a man much of the public believed might break the back of Palestinian terrorism. And through security measures, the wall/security barrier (which he initially opposed), and targeted killings, he delivered.

In addition to being a warrior, Sharon was also a farmer, with a deep knowledge of and connection to the land — both its agricultural and biblical dimensions. He was proud of this fact and loved to talk about animals. This was on display at the 1998 Wye River Summit, hosted by President Bill Clinton in the United States. Sharon refused to shake Arafat’s hand, and he talked about the Palestinians in the third person even though they were sitting at the same table. Indeed, Sharon seemed more interested in the herd of prize Angus cows that the University of Maryland maintained at the Wye River plantation than in the negotiations themselves. Also, on more than one occasion at his farm at Shikmim in southern Israel, Sharon insisted on talking flowers and livestock before business. In 2002, on the helicopter tour he gave Gen. Anthony Zinni, then the Bush administration’s special envoy on the peace process, Sharon narrated with the authority of a man who had walked or driven every kilometer from the Lebanese border to the Negev. Watching Sharon explain the real estate, I thought of the poet’s line about individuals being monarchs of all they survey. Sharon was certainly that.

As prime minister, Sharon matured. I think he learned at least two critical things about his own politics: First, that he had to read the public correctly and not overreach; and second, that if it was possible to do and didn’t cost much, he should keep the Americans happy. Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza — and essentially take down the settlement enterprise he had created — did both these things. However imperfect the disengagement turned out to be, it was an act of boldness and brilliance that no other Israeli politician of his day could have implemented. Hamas or no Hamas, few Israelis would still want the IDF in Gaza today, even with Hezbollah’s rockets in southern Lebanon.

Just as Sharon learned two things as prime minister, upon his passing, I now have two takeaways on his legacy.

First, with Sharon gone, Israel faces a significant leadership transition. Only the extraordinary and indefatigable Shimon Peres — now 90 — remains from the cast of Israeli characters who shepherded the state through its early years. At a breakfast once at Sharon’s farm with Peres, I watched the two interact. Despite their political differences, there was a real affection and a shared sense of history between them. Indeed, they had both seen just about everything. At one point, Peres actually said that there were few surprises left for the two of them.

The Israeli prime ministers who have followed that generation — Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu — are incredibly smart, able leaders. But they don’t have the same authority, legitimacy, and authenticity as their predecessors. Despite their flaws and mistakes, Israel’s previous leaders had tremendous will and skill to keep a challenging enterprise afloat and prosperous during very tough times. Who now will make the difficult but important decisions? Sharon presided over the evacuation of 8,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza — deeply traumatic but without serious or sustained violence. Who will deal with the evacuation of tens of thousands of ideologically motivated and well-armed Israelis living on the West Bank? The answer just isn’t clear.

Second, Sharon was not a peacemaker. Suspicious and mistrustful, he believed deeply that Israel was engaged in a hundred-year war with the Arabs and had profound doubts about the viability of a Palestinian state. He asked me once whether it was true that I wanted to become the first ambassador to the state of Palestine. When I said no, he laughed and said that was a good thing because there would never be one.

Could Sharon — a man with the power to make big decisions — have changed his tune while prime minister, had he not been felled by a stroke? I doubt it. But we’ll never know.

Had he changed his mind while in office, it would have confirmed the reality that, on the Israeli side, the history of peacemaking isn’t the purview of the left, the doves, or even the moderate right. Instead, it’s a history of transformed hawks — Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and perhaps Netanyahu, still the only Likud prime minister to have actually withdrawn from any West Bank territory. By and large tough guys who, for any number of reasons, believed — as Sharon did in calling for disengagement from Gaza — that the situation (and Israel’s interests) demanded a change.

Yet the equation of peace requires many parts to reach a conflict-ending solution. Even if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry succeeds in getting a framework agreement on peace, anything remotely resembling the creation of a Palestinian state, let alone a true end to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, will require heroic leaders on both sides willing and able to make big decisions. And in the wake of Sharon’s passing, I’m reminded, sadly, that even will and capacity aren’t enough. Such leaders must also have the desire to get the job done.

*Correction (Jan. 14, 2014): This article originally misstated that an Israeli state commission charged Ariel Sharon with indirect responsibility for allowing Christian militias to massacre hundreds of Palestinian innocents in Sabra and Shatila. The commission charged Sharon with personal responsibility. (Return to reading article.)

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2