By Gershom Gorenberg
With the news of Ariel Sharon's massive stroke -- how could anything involving Sharon be anything but "massive"? -- two images from his long career leaped to mind, so different as to seem impossible to fit into the same biography.
The first comes from a warm June night in 1974: In a field near Nablus in the northern West Bank, a hundred activists from Israel's radical right camped out, intent on establishing a new settlement. Their goal was to assert permanent Jewish control of occupied territory, and to make sure that Yitzhak Rabin's centrist government would not be able to give up Palestinian-populated land for peace. The essential authority of an elected government to set foreign policy was in question. At last, soldiers got orders to remove the would-be settlers, who kicked, screamed and lay on the ground, holding on to rocks. And through the melee stormed a short, stocky man, ex-general and freshman Knesset member Ariel Sharon, roaring, "Refuse orders! Refuse orders!"
The second image is from 31 summers later. On an August day in 2005, columns of Israeli soldiers and police marched into Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip to evacuate the residents. Before the world's TV cameras, settlers screamed at soldiers, demanded that they refuse orders -- but almost none did. The government had decided that Israel could not continue to rule over the Strip's Palestinians. At the head of that government stood Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Measured by political position, the two men seem like strangers -- one a brash rebel intent on holding land, the other an elder statesman declaring that for Israel to remain a Jewish state and a democracy, it must give up territory.
Yet beneath those differences is one Ariel Sharon. His career is unified by his persona, his essential stance toward the world. As an officer and politician, Sharon believed that by exerting power, Israel could impose its will and draw the map of the Middle East -- and that within Israel, his own force of will would shape reality. Others from his generation of officer-politicians treated Middle East statecraft as a chess game. He acted as if it were a chess problem from a book, with himself as the sole player facing the board.
In the early 1970s, as head of the army's Southern Command, Gen. Sharon put down a Palestinian insurgency in Gaza's refugee camps. A key weapon, he later recounted, was the bulldozer -- used to tear patrol roads through the camps, to uncover bunkers, to rip down hedges gunmen used for cover. The bulldozer became his emblem, his alter ego.
Sharon also sought to break up occupied land with "fingers" of Israeli settlement, including one that would separate Gaza from the Israeli-held Sinai. In early 1972, troops under Sharon's command expelled at least 5,000 Bedouin from the northern Sinai. Afterward, he was reportedly reprimanded for "exceeding authority" -- yet, as if to endorse his action, settlements were indeed established on the Bedouin land.
After the right gained power in Israel in 1977, Sharon became the architect of its settlement policy, the man who redrew the map of the West Bank. Establishing dozens of Israeli communities between Arab towns, he again sought to fragment the territory and prevent Palestinian independence. In enclaves remaining between the settlements, he said, Israel should impose limited Palestinian autonomy -- unilaterally setting the political future.
Perhaps his most daring bid to reshape the region was the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Then defense minister, Sharon hoped not only to shatter the Palestine Liberation Organization but also to create a new Lebanese regime allied with Israel. Instead, Israel found itself in a quagmire that lasted 18 years -- a lesson for those willing to read it.
Endurance finally brought him to the premiership five years ago. He aimed at breaking the Palestinian uprising by military force -- and then, surprising the nation, decided that the Jewish state's future depended on relinquishing Gaza and much of the West Bank. He would determine Israel's final borders by removing settlements and building a fence through the West Bank. The goals shifted; the method -- unilateral action -- remained.
Sharon's belief in the strength of will gave him charisma. It touched something deep in the Israeli psyche: the desire to place Jewish weakness firmly in the past, to end the days when Jews were the victims of other people's often cruel decisions. He was the avatar of self-determination.
Yet despite himself, he also demonstrated the limits of force, the failure of political solipsism. In fact, he was not alone at the chess board. Faced with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat's peace initiative, Israel correctly chose to give up the Sinai settlements. The Lebanon invasion failed to end Palestinian nationalism. Without a diplomatic element, the Gaza pullout has not brought peace.
Sharon's gambits unraveled because he learned half of history's lessons. He was right that Israel, like other nations, needs the arts of power. But it also needs the art of words, negotiations, compromises. Now, it appears, Ariel Sharon is leaving the stage of politics. Those who follow him should understand his tragic flaws.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977," to be published in March.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
This article also appeared in Newsday on Wednesday, January 10, 2006.