‘The great question of our day,” wrote Ariel Sharon in “Warrior,” his 1989 autobiography, “is whether we, the Jewish people of Israel, can find within us the will to survive as a nation.” Sharon embodied that will — no matter what the cost to his reputation or political fortunes. When he died Saturday at age 85, after eight years in a state of minimal consciousness, Sharon was remembered as a bold, decisive, and complicated man whose dedication to country led him down some highly controversial paths.
To some he was a war hero; to others, a war criminal. For a long time, Sharon believed in fighting brutality with brutality; collateral damage was the cost of Israel’s survival in hostile surroundings. In 1953, he led an infamous raid into Jordan, blowing up houses and killing villagers. As Israel’s defense minister, he was found indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre of women and children in refugee camps in Lebanon. Forced to resign, Sharon’s career seemed over.
But he staged a remarkable comeback later in life and was elected prime minister in 2001. In that role, he understood the need to change course and did so dramatically, taking up the quest for peace, compromise, and strengthened relationships with allies. The man who once encouraged Israelis to build settlements on occupied Palestinian land went on to order Israeli soldiers and settlers to leave the land they had staked out in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
This pragmatic shift horrified some of Sharon’s former supporters. Yet because no one could fairly question his commitment to his country’s security, his new stance was a striking acknowledgment of the limits to what can be achieved by military force. A massive stroke in 2006 cut short hopes that Sharon might find a route to a sustainable peace. Even so, he set an example for future leaders through his willingness to change tactics and his recognition that only a two-state solution could preserve his lifelong goal of a secure Israel.