Hon. Life President Zionist Council of NSW.
There will be a lot written about Ariel Sharon z”l and I would be a little sceptical of those critics who describe his life in terms of sudden changes or ideological summersaults, which in my view says more about those authors than of their understanding of Ariel Sharon and indeed of Israel.
Many words will be used such as “controversial” and “flawed”.
First and foremost Ariel Sharon was a leader – and he was a leader for around 60 years. And a human being.
Now if you factor in that leaders are risk takers and innovators – indeed the very qualities lauded of Israelis today in books such as “Start Up Nation” – and that the area is the Middle East and that the task was building a Nation – then over such a long period of time it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made and errors of judgement will have occurred.
I would however argue that although much maligned, he was less flawed than any other comparable leader in Israel – or elsewhere.
Of course some people will shout “Sabra and Shatilla” amongst other things. I would only note that the Kahan Commission of Inquiry chaired by the President of the Israeli Supreme Court found that no Israeli was directly responsible for the massacre.
Sharon was severely reprimanded for not anticipating that the Christian Phalangists would massacre the Moslems.
How many in the western media et al turned that into Sharon’s alleged reputation as a “war criminal” and demonised him in such a way that coloured many erstwhile Israel supporters’ point of view, is a matter for those who study distortions of historical fact.
Sharon was not a follower of Jabotinsky, he came from the so called “left”.
And he was certainly never a territorialist for the sake of territory.
He was a Jewish State firster and security firster.
Sharon was a territorialist for the sake of security, territory was a means to an end.
For Sharon demography was also a major factor in security.
The critical point in understanding him and in understanding Israel is that his overall strategy never varied over his entire life. The strategy remained consistent.
What changed were the tactics needed – as he saw it – to bring about the Jewish State and to maintain her security.
Begin, as did Sharon, saw greater security in a peace treaty with Egypt than in keeping Yamit – and that was back in 1982 when Sharon as a Minister in the Government used high pressure water hoses to remove the Jewish settlers from Yamit.
Late in the year 2000, I gave a speech at the NSW Board of Deputies plenum which I titled – “Sharon the Left Winger and Peres the Right Winger”.
I stated that if elected in 2001 Sharon would take Israel out of Gaza.
The Disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was a policy entirely in keeping with the central policy of the short lived political party (Shlomzion) founded by Sharon in 1977, and with his actions in 1982 at Yamit for example, more than 20 years before the Gaza Disengagement.
In 2001, with the Likud only holding 19 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and with Netanyahu refusing to return to the Likud leadership because he saw it as an impossible situation to run the country with only 19 seats, Ariel Sharon stepped forward under the direct election system and won one of the most decisive wins in any democratic election anywhere in the world, winning over 62% of the vote.
He proved that even with only 19 seats a strong and respected leader could lead a very stable and powerful government.
Sharon deeply damaged the Labor Party at the time with his divide and conquer policy of bringing his old friend Peres into the Government as Foreign Minister – and 13 years later Labor is still struggling to recover from that split between old Labor and the up and coming leadership at the time.
In 2003 Sharon went back to the electorate under a full parliamentary vote and once again received an overwhelming mandate and it should be noted, left the Haredi parties out of the government coalition.
In these years he showed what a remarkable politician he had become.
His life of ups and downs, his heroic struggles, his rare mistakes were simply a reflection of the history of Israel – and people were willing to follow him all through his life.
Soldiers volunteered for the units he led in the army, even though his units suffered the highest casualty rates – because they were always in the vanguard and in the riskiest situations.
Almost against the (mis)understanding of his history, and against the (mis) understanding of many outside of Israel – Sharon had become the consensus man.
My greatest disappointment in the early 2000’s was to see some local Jewish communal leaders and educators try to overlook this, as they were befuddled by it.
The Jewish News itself brought out an editorial titled “Mr Sharafat” calling Sharon and Arafat Siamese twins. In my opinion that was the lowest point for the AJN over my decades of activity in our community.
And some of our strongest supporters in the general community till Sharon’s election, particularly in the Labor Party, turned away from us.
Jewish State firsters – that is the vast majority of the citizens of Israel – understood that risks were necessary and believed that the legendary soldier would have the most comprehensive understanding of how to achieve the united goal with the best, or if you prefer, the least worst security outcome.
Put simply, the people trusted Sharon in his final active 5 years, with their future safety and in having an understanding of Israel’s true core needs.
Although of European background it is also important to remember that he more than just about any other Israeli leader, understood the Arab People and their mentality.
And they understood him, respected him and feared him.
His positive relations with Mubarak and King Hussein are well documented.
Sharon knew that Arafat not only did not believe in democracy, but did not even understand it and saw it as a weakness to be exploited.
When Sharon wanted to send a message to Arafat, he knew that sending an Israeli Minister would not be taken seriously by Arafat who himself did not take any of his own “Ministers” seriously.
So, although an unpopular move at home, Sharon sent his son Omri. Like a king sending his son, Arafat understood that such a messenger was to be taken seriously.
Sharon also demonstrated the enduring message of history – only the “right wing” can make peace – only the “right wing” can cede territory – and the only the “right wing” can make far reaching concessions on security.
As an aside, like it or not, Lieberman fulfils that role today, (and since Sharon’s ill health) of the “pragmatic right winger”. The Jewish State firster with security and not territory as the prime concern. Albeit with an even greater emphasis on demography leading to his willingness to cede more territory than most of those regarded as being to his “left”.
On the personal level it was my privilege to lead meetings of Australian Jewry with Sharon as Prime Minister on a number of occasions.
One of the paradoxical things about him was that whilst seemingly lacking in charisma in the media, he was extremely charismatic and very charming in person. In his time as Prime Minister descriptive terms of him moved from the “bulldozer” to the “grandfather”, something he looked the part for as well.
What was apparent at each and every meeting was his love of Israel, his dedication to her and her people and now also to Jewish continuity outside of Israel, whilst he always fiercely promoted aliyah as the best form of Jewish continuity.
MASA, the project to provide funding for longer term programmes in Israel, was a partnership between Sharon and the Jewish Agency.
And it was a meeting about MASA that was my last personal meeting with Sharon in 2005, even whilst he had arguably bigger issues to deal with in light of the Disengagement from Gaza.
However it was at an earlier meeting with a larger delegation from Israel that I had some of my funnier moments.
Prior to that meeting I had requested a private audience with Sharon to explain to him who he was about to meet and what the major issues were likely to be.
Two of us went into his private office and he welcomed us but had a 3rd Australian’s name on his sheet – someone who in fact had missed his plane and was not in attendance.
Sharon turned to a man standing behind us and also welcomed him as if he was the 3rd Australian, but we knew that the man standing there was not from Australia.
In Hebrew, the man told Sharon that he was not that person.
“Who are you?” asked Sharon.
“I am your advisor” the man replied.
“My advisor??? On what??? Since when?????”
“I have been your advisor for 6 weeks” the man replied “but until now have not had the opportunity to meet with you”.
Moments like these…………….
One of my favourite personal stories relates to a photo of myself whispering in Sharon’s ear.
What could it have been, what in depth level of analysis and comment?
So, this very same new advisor now exercised his newfound access via the Australian delegation, to tell me that Sharon had to conclude the meeting and move on to his next engagement.
I leaned over and said as much to Sharon.
All he could say was ma, ma? (what, what)?
So I got redder and redder and spoke louder and louder – then he turned to me and said that he was almost completely deaf in that ear from firing mortars in his earlier days.
He then asked the group if they wanted the meeting to continue, they did – and so it did – I have no idea who we had kept waiting for that extra 30 minutes, but Sharon really seemed to enjoy it all and of course the whole delegation lapped it up.
When Sharon was elected in 2001, there was a type of disengagement from Israel by large sections of Australian Jewry who saw what they viewed as an Israel that had lost its way.
In reality, it was they who misunderstood Israel.
At the height of the Intifada in 2002 we held the largest rally of its kind ever in Australian Jewish history in support of Israel at Wynyard Park in Sydney – and that was a sort of a turning point.
Then the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005 brought people who had estranged themselves from Israel to better understand that Israel and Arik Sharon were sincere about trying, hoping to achieve some sort of peace, and willing to take grave risks with security as well as to constantly show our friends that we are not the obstacle to a resolution of the conflict.
Even with those risks often seeming out of all proportion to the immediate potential gain.
And this was simultaneously to now alienating some in the “religious right” who felt betrayed by a man and a people they had assessed wrongly.
At the end of the day Sharon was a true leader of Israel and the Jewish People, a true hero, he deserves our respect and our thanks, and our gratitude for an extraordinary life spent in the service of Am Yisrael, and he deserves to finally be able to rest – baruch dayan emet.