Appreciation: A salute to Ariel Sharon
In January 1985, as a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, I was running a course for high-ranking officers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), focused on lessons from Israel’s wars. One of the case studies to be discussed was the battle of Um-Katef/Abu-Ageila, in the Six-Day War, when the division of Gen. Ariel Sharon broke the backbone of the Egyptian army and enabled the breakthrough into Sinai, thus paving the way to Israel’s great land victory. This highly complex combined operation, executed impeccably at night, has been studied since in many military academies all around the world as a model for generalship at its best. Needless to say, I was going to invite Sharon to speak about this battle.
The problem was that Sharon was in New York at that time, suing Time magazine for libel. The trial was nearing its end, so I called Sharon’s hotel in New York, hoping to speak with his close friend and confidant, Uri Dan. Instead, Sharon himself answered. “Of course,” he said immediately. “I’ll be in Tel Aviv in a few days and will speak to your course.” Then he had a very strange request: that an officer should wait for him at the airport, to take him straight to the IDF History Unit. When he arrived after the long flight, instead of going home, he spent six hours studying the details of the battle he had fought 18 years before.
The following day, he arrived at our course and gave a mesmerizing lecture. Escorting him to his car, I couldn’t help asking why he needed to refresh his memory about a battle he had probably known by heart. He looked at me and said: “Young man, I just spoke to a group of serious people. You have to prepare for that.” Then he added: “Whatever you do, do it properly.” (“Kmo she’zarich,” in Hebrew.)
Israeli Prime Minister-elect Sharon looks up as he touches Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall, in 2001. Photo by Brian Hendler
Retiring from active duty in the summer of 1973 and hungry for a political career, Sharon was confronted by the hostile Laborite establishment, which had ruled Israel for ages and had viewed the charismatic general with suspicion. Instead of bowing to the existing powers, Sharon surprised them by establishing the Likud Party, which, four years later, snatched the hegemony from Labor.
During the Yom Kippur War, he did a lot of things that his superiors thought were improper — so much so that they even talked about firing him. Luckily for Israel, they didn’t. His performance during the first dark days of the war, when he calmly and expertly led his troops in containing the invading Egyptian army, will go down in our history as the quintessence of Israeli resilience. Not to mention his crossing of the Suez Canal, which turned the tables on the Egyptians.
In 1982, as defense minister, when he felt he’d had just enough of the Palestinian intransigence coming from Lebanon, he manipulated Menachem Begin’s government into the first Lebanon War. Again, was it done kmo she’zarich? Depends on whom you’re asking. The Kahan Commission of Inquiry, established after the Sabra and Shatila massacre carried out by Lebanese Christians, then Israel’s allies, obviously thought it wasn’t, and sent the defense minister home. Sharon, on the other hand, believed that he had done the right thing by kicking Yasser Arafat and his terrorist apparatus from Lebanon, thus hammering in the message that you can’t mess with Israel for so long and get away with it.
Ten years later, as housing minister, he was entrusted with the awesome task of accommodating 1 million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (the equivalent of accommodating 50 million immigrants in the United States in one year). He stood up to the historic occasion. Did he do it properly? The state comptroller, who had investigated it later, didn’t think so and reprimanded Sharon for ignoring budgetary constraints and normal government procedures. Yet, by giving these people a home in Israel, Sharon achieved one of the greatest feats in the history of our country.
Finally, as prime minister, he came to the conclusion that Israel shouldn’t be ruling millions of Arabs, and that it has to adjust its borders accordingly. When he met opposition within his own Likud Party, he again broke away from the impasse by creating a new party, Kadima. The way in which he disengaged from Gaza was not the proper one: He should have given Gaza to Abu Mazen, instead of letting it fall into the hands of Hamas. But, again, this was Sharon’s way: He didn’t believe that there was a credible Palestinian partner and therefore did what he thought was good for Israel, unilaterally.
Today, when many Israelis feel that their political leaders can’t accomplish much in any given area, the imminence of Sharon’s final departure, even after a long illness, is especially painful. Controversial as he was during his lifetime, Israelis today salute a warrior and a leader who — for better or worse — knew how to do things kmo she’zarich.