January 13, 2014

R.I.P., Ariel Sharon - Israel's last visionary leader?

Ariel Sharon's passing is opening a flood of memories back to 1973, including a time when it seemed Israel had options, because its leaders were willing to think big and take risks - and not just for peace. That spirit, which Sharon embodied, still abounds among Israelis, but it seems to me (granted, from a distance) that it's been a while (say, eight years) since the leaders have channeled it. Sharon was the last of that breed.

(Israeli President Shimon Peres is a master visionary, but he serves in a figurehead capacity and will be retiring at the end of his current term.)

I remember, over a span of mere months, from July 1976 to early 1977, Israel liberated the Entebbe hostages and Maccabi Tel-Aviv defeated the Soviet Red Army basketball team, on its way to winning the European cup - a defining moment. 

Menachem Begin's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor was a bold stroke, and even the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon was audacious. As Defense Minister, Sharon had sought to decapitate the PLO in exile, in the hope that local West Bank leaders would somehow emerge to negotiate Palestinian acquiescence to permanent Israeli control.

There were subsequent moments as well, including Anwar Sadat's dramatic 1978 visit to Jerusalem, at the behest of Menachem Begin which culminated in the Camp David talks and the 1979 peace treaty, and of course Oslo in 1993 and the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, led by Yitzhak Rabin. For anyone who remembers 1973, it's still difficult to absorb how much changed in just five years' time.

Sharon, like Rabin before him, was a general whose strategic vision eventually applied itself to securing Israel's survival off the battlefield and far into the future.

Improbably, especially in light of 1982, Sharon reclaimed the activist's mantle just a decade ago, as Prime Minister. He saw that Gaza was lost as an Israeli stronghold, a small piece of beach with well over one million Palestinians. Back then, the half-hearted U.S. peace efforts were actually lagging behind the Israelis and Palestinians, and besides, Sharon didn't see Mahmoud Abbas being able to deliver his side of a bilateral agreement. As Rabin did before him, Sharon realized that - if Israelis and Palestinians can't live together peacefully, then it's better to live separately, beginning with Gaza.

Around Sharon's funeral, numerous and interlocking calculations were being made. The official statements from the White House and State Department seemed careful not to underplay Sharon's significance, as a positive message to Israel's current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nor to shower so much praise that Netanyahu feels slighted by contrast. In his eulogy at the funeral, Netanyahu replayed his own mantras about the Holocaust and Iran. U.S. Vice President Biden, leading the U.S. delegation, extolled Sharon's bravery in evacuating Gaza and reiterated President Obama's unwavering commitment to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

In itself, the fact that Biden was there, eight years after Sharon left the scene under a massive stroke, underscored the abiding value and honor Washington attaches to Israeli leaders who are willing to take control of their destiny. At the end, it was Sharon's private secretary and a war buddy who evoked his personal tenderness and devotion in a way that truly transcended official protocol and convention. 

My biggest regret today was the ring of truth to Biden's closing quote from Shakespeare: We "shall not look upon his like again."

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