By Gil Troy
Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former prime minister who died recently at 85, after being in a vegetative state for eight years, helped save Israel at least twice. The first time, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, won him worldwide acclaim. The second time, against Yasir Arafat’s terror war three decades later, earned him broad denunciations. That shift reflects the change in tactics in the decades-long war against Israel’s existence, and the resulting plunge in Israel’s popularity.
In October 1973, Sharon, a fierce fighter who was left for dead in the 1948 war and pioneered new tank maneuvers in 1967, risked a court martial when his troops crossed the Suez Canal. Israel was reeling, having been surprised by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, the Jews’ holiest day. Defying his superiors, Sharon insisted that Israel should take the offense and enter Egyptian territory. His daring maneuver worked, encircling Egypt’s Third Army and helping Israel triumph. Millions toasted Sharon and his plucky little country’s comeback from a dastardly surprise attack.
Since that devastating Arab military defeat, Israel’s neighbors have not invaded the Jewish state. Peace with Egypt, then Jordan, followed, while Israel and Syria remained at a standstill. Instead, in many ways, the fight shifted from the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1975, when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 declaring Zionism to be a form of racism, the Palestinian approach of globalizing the war against Israel starting getting traction. Treating the fight against Israel as part of the broader war against colonialism, imperialism and racism, emphasizing Palestinian suffering, and targeting Israel’s controversial settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, cast Israel as the aggressor not the victim to many, especially in Europe and on the far left. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America’s UN ambassador who opposed the resolution in 1975 warned presciently that, under such ideological assault, increasingly, “Whether Israel was responsible,” for particular problems, “Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.”
Over the decades, the conflict became more complex, partially due to Sharon’s own role in Israeli politics. Sharon helped expand the settlement project from security stations or extensions of Israeli territory that Jews controlled before 1948, such as the Gush Etzion area, to building ideological outposts surrounded by Palestinians.
Moreover, as defense minister during the 1982 war against Palestinian terror coming from Lebanon, Sharon overstretched by invading Beirut, then failed to stop Christian Phalangists from massacring Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Such moves helped make Israel look like Goliath with the Palestinians as the world’s Davids — even as most Israelis repudiated Sharon.
Similarly, in 2000, although Yasir Arafat disappointed President Bill Clinton by refusing to consider Israel’s serious peace offer at Camp David, sabotaged the Oslo process, and led his people back to terror, many Israel critics blamed the Israelis and particularly Ariel Sharon rather than Arafat and the Palestinians. Arafat’s war of suicide bombings catapulted Sharon into power as prime minister in March 2001. A year later, after terrorists murdered more than 130 Israelis in one month — and after September 11 mobilized Americans against terrorism — Sharon counterattacked. Israel’s military offensive against the West Bank in April 2002 eventually calmed the region, but made Sharon a hated figure in European capitals, on many American campuses, and throughout the Arab world.
The wily tactician shocked his critics by reversing course with Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in August 2005. “The Bulldozer” now pushed disengagement from the Palestinians as aggressively as he had pushed for the Egyptian counterattack and the settlements. Four months later, a stroke silenced the portly Sharon, leaving friends and foes to speculate about how he would have responded to the first waves of rockets from Gaza, to the Hamas coup seizing control there, and the other events which have riled the region.
As Israel’s buries this fallen hero, his career testifies to the unhappy choices imposed on the Jewish State by the ongoing war against its existence, the increasingly testy international climate it faces, Israel’s success in stopping suicide bombings, and one man’s ability to shape history — and to evolve as a leader as circumstances change.
26 February 1928 – 11 January 2014
Gil Troy is a leading political historian, and one of today’s most prominent activists in the fight against the delegitimization of Israel. He is Professor of History at McGill University, and a Research Fellow in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program. Professor Troy’s writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and other major media outlets. He writes a weekly column for The Jerusalem Post, and is Editor-at-Large of The Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog. Professor Troy is the author of eight books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Image credit: Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister of Israel speaking at a press conference at the National Press Club. Photo by Jim Wallace (Smithsonian Institution). CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.