Ariel Sharon and the Messianism of Force

The legacy of a warrior and Prime Minister.

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In 1983 I attended the founding meeting in Jerusalem of Netivot Shalom, a Religious Zionist peace movement. 

Addressing the assembly, among others, was Rabbi Yehuda Amital, an extraordinary figure: Holocaust survivor, Haganah veteran, a creator of the network of hesder yeshivot which combine study with army service, founder and dean of a major yeshiva in Gush Etzion, the Plymouth Rock of West Bank settlements. A passionate theologian, Rabbi Amital had been a leading figure and thinker of the Gush Emunim settlement movement in its heyday. Now, years later, with the Israeli Army mired in Lebanon, he concluded that it was time to change course and made his case with no diminution in passion.

"There are three kinds of false messianism afoot in the Land of Israel," he said, "Gush Emunim, Peace Now, and Ariel Sharon."

ariel sharonHe continued: "We live in a complex reality and each proposes a simple answer: Gush Emumin offers faith, Peace Now offers good intentions, and Ariel Sharon offers force. Not one of them is sufficient. All three are necessary, each balancing the other in their place and time."

I have, in the last two decades, often thought about Rabbi Amital's speech, and certainly now, with the eclipse of Ariel Sharon. 

Military Man

Ariel Sharon's passing from the political scene elicited waves of public sentiment and genuine concern that are, for anyone who has followed the last quarter-century of Israeli politics, nothing short of astounding. That Arik Sharon, who for decades was perhaps Israel's most divisive, reviled, and feared political figure (and that's saying something) at home and abroad--that he of all people should be regarded so tenderly, seems to prove once again that Israel is the land of miracles, the kind that leave you scratching your head.

Arik Sharon, the human bulldozer, mushroomed out of some deep fold of Israeli and Zionist history: Company commander in the 1948 war, commander of the legendary Unit 101 and thus one of the creator's of Israel's forward-leaning military ethos, out-and-out hero of the 1973 war, architect of the megalomaniacal and disastrous Lebanon War--the ruination of a generation--and the master-builder of Israel's settlements; a fighter seemingly from birth, he gave no quarter, plunging headlong from one adventure to another.

Sharon reminds one of Yiftah of the Book of Judges--the not-entirely-respectable chieftan to whom the timid elders turn to fight their battles--whose headlong ardor leads him to sacrifice his own daughter. Israel turned to Sharon most recently, and gave him the Premiership in the midst of a brutal intifada, which he did crack in the end, with force, force, and more force. Israel is now more secure than it was when he took office. History will judge if it could have been safer with fewer dead on both sides.

Building and Dismantling Settlements

Sharon believed to the end in the primacy of force. What changed, and brought about his stunning withdrawal from Gaza, was his net assessment of Israel's security threats as primarily demographic and, secondarily, everything else. Sharon pursued the destruction of the Jewish presence in Gaza with the same relentlessness with which he had subdued its Palestinian residents in the late 1960s and built its Jewish settlements in the decades since.

The settler groups that were glad to follow the National Bulldozer when it followed their preferred path were horrified to see it reverse course and bear down on them. Sharon was, in the course of the disengagement, as dismissive of democratic practice as ever. After announcing the initiative he simply returned to his ranch, emerging occasionally to reward his friends and punish his enemies. In the end he executed the task with lightning speed and breathtaking tactical success and did more to undo the settlement project than all the leftists in the world.

I Am the State

Sharon's forcefulness was part of his personality, of course, but it flourished as part of a national ethos. He embodied the forcefulness of the 1948 Generation, raised on and tied to the land, for whom the involved ideological debates of their parents--and of their tactical allies among the settlers--were foreign abstractions. Sharon was and remained a member of MAPAI, the party created in that Labor Zionist image, devoid of ideological romance and focused on the practical. Yet Sharon was able to navigate the post-1977 populist tides that swept MAPAI out to sea.

He gave new meaning to L'etat cest moi (I am the state). One was regularly left thunderstruck by Sharon's belief in his own righteousness, as evinced in his lawsuit against Time magazine in 1983 and his willingness to be humbled but not sidelined by the Kahan Commission that found him indirectly responsible for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.

It was unclear if Lebanon taught him anything about the limits of force as a means of redrawing the map of the Arab world. The Gaza disengagement showed that he had learned the limits of physical force as an instrument of controlling the Palestinians. As with Rabin and Barak so too with him, it was precisely his lack of sentimentality about a "new Middle East," that made him the likeliest peacemaker around.

Sharon became, at the end, the representative and leader of Middle Israel, the broad pragmatic center which seeks to leave the territories--in part on moral grounds, in part out of enlightened self-interest--and believes, reasonably, that peace is at best a distant longing, while the most to be hoped for in the near-to-middle term is some rough coexistence. And if even that is unattainable, we must redraw the borders of the state to be better prepared, internally and externally, for the conflicts ahead.

With Sharon's unilateral departure from Gaza, the last of the three false messianisms ran onto the shoals, leaving Israel to try and find some workable mixture of force, good intentions and, yes, faith.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.