Ariel Sharon’s Journey from Soldier to Statesman
Arik Sharon started as a warrior. He ended his career on the way to being a peacemaker. On that journey from fighting in every one of Israel’s wars to lying comatose for eight years in a Jerusalem hospital, he symbolized the anguish and dilemmas of Israel. A people who had come to their historic homeland had established themselves, surrounded by a culture that never acquiesced in ceding what it considered Islamic patrimony. Even before the proclamation of the Jewish state, Israel found itself in a state of war that has never ended. It has always lacked the essential prerequisite for peaceful coexistence with its neighbors: their recognition of its existence, which everywhere else is the precondition of diplomacy, not its outcome.
This state of affairs produced two aspects of the Israeli psyche: a hair-trigger response to security threats and an attitude toward the peace process both grudging and nostalgic. Israel’s margin of survival has been so narrow that its leaders felt they could not run risks about emerging military capabilities of countries that refused to accept and daily castigated the Jewish state. When threatened, preemption became its style of warfare. And it viewed the peace process both with reluctance to give up territory in an environment so rife with denunciation and with a definition of peace so sweeping as to be very difficult to achieve in a single negotiation.
When he was struck down by a stroke in 2006 , Sharon as prime minister was in the process of putting before his people a vision of coexistence with the Palestinians. Many visionaries of peace in Israel were military men: Yitzhak Rabin won the 1967 war. Shimon Peres, though not a military man, went the same route: a hawk in his early career, a passionate advocate of the peace process in recent decades.
Sharon had to undertake the longest journey to reach this insight. A daring commander, he conducted the battle that reversed the tide of the 1973 war; he was the principal advocate of the operations in Lebanon. For many years, he deplored America’s decision in 1973 to bring about a negotiated end of the war. I was secretary of state at the time, and he missed few opportunities to chide me.
The United States acted as it did then because we were convinced that, however vast the margin of victory, it would leave Israel with its historic challenge: how to translate victories over threats to its security into political coexistence with the societies it lived among. The Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, seemed to offer such a prospect.
In our many discussions, I always respected, then grew to admire and eventually develop affection for, this dedicated man living on a farm at the edge of the Negev desert, a kind of symbolic outpost. I looked forward to his visits while he was out of office; he would arrive at our meetings with maps under his arm that he used to explain the minimum requirements of Israel’s survival.
As prime minister, Sharon unexpectedly broadened his definition of security. He sought to bridge the gap between physical and political security with the same courage and decisiveness that had brought him victory in battle. He volunteered the largest withdrawal in Israel’s history. He ended the Israeli occupation of Gaza and returned it to Arab self-rule as a unilateral act without reciprocity, abandoning even the Jewish settlements that had been established there. (In a similar spirit, Ehud Barak had withdrawn troops unilaterally from southern Lebanon.) These gestures were conceived as a test case for a negotiation about the future of the West Bank, which Sharon once had viewed as a permanent Israeli outpost. The man who had identified security with the acquisition of territory became willing to cede territory for an outcome to fulfill the hopes for peace.
It cannot be said that the result justified this act of faith. Israel was threatened by missile attacks from non-state actors: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza. Politically, Sharon’s vision was under attack from all sides: from those in Israel who insisted on a larger state, from Arab leaders who denied Israel the right to exist altogether, and from non-state terrorist groups. Still, Sharon’s vision reflected an essential first step; it was a sacrifice on behalf of raising prospects for a lasting peace — to which both sides must make a contribution by taking concrete steps and not by largely symbolic acts alone.
With another peace process underway, one needs to respect the courage of those who are willing to brave it in light of so many disappointments. It must be conducted both with commitment to the process and with a recollection of unfulfilled hopes. The vision of peace must be coupled with a determination not to permit the peace process to be turned into another form of warfare. An outcome must not only draw lines of territorial divisions but also bring a meaningful acceptance of the Jewish state by its negotiating partner as well as by key Arab states.
The writer was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.
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