The one quote to make sense of Ariel Sharon and his legacy

A 2005 photo of Ariel Sharon. (KEVIN FRAYER/AFP/Getty Images)

A 2005 photo of Ariel Sharon. (Kevin Frayer/AFP/Getty Images)

There's probably no issue in the world more contentious, or more heavily litigated, than the Israel-Palestine conflict. That has all come out with the death this weekend of Ariel Sharon, whose long career in Israeli politics included five years as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006. Sharon's legacy, like his country and the conflict it is still engaged in, is treated with something much more complicated than mere controversy. The debate around his life and actions has been, and will long continue to be, polemical.

There are many, many good things to read that explore Sharon's legacy for the world and the debate around it. I would suggest starting with Hussein Ibish in Foreign Affairs and Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg Views.

As a starting point, though, it is worth attempting to understand the worldview of Sharon himself: what he thought, how he saw the world, what drove him in his actions. That too is a far too complex task to fully accomplish with a single article, if ever. But there is one quote, from Sharon's interviews with the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, that captures it probably better than any other single sentence could.

Here is that quote: "Today, the Jews are in less danger because Israel is strong. But would I rely on the world with respect to the Jews? No. I don’t rely on anyone in this matter."

To be clear, I am not endorsing the worldview Sharon shows in this quote. But it does reveal much about him: an almost pathological concern with security (one that some see as appropriate, others as at best counterproductive), a direct connection between Israeli politics and the history of the Jewish people, a refusal to trust anyone and a realpolitik tenacity that may have driven much of the actions that shaped his legacy.

The quote is even more resonant in a bit more context. Here, from Shavit's interview:

I wondered how Sharon felt about the changed opinion of him in much of the world. The Arab world, and many on the left elsewhere, would never forgive him his early career, especially Sabra and Shatila. But now he was widely respected, even revered, by people who had written him off as the cruel, militaristic ogre of the Zionist occupation.

“This doesn’t intoxicate me,” he said. “I’ve seen them regard me one way and I’ve seen them regard me another way. And I know that it can be the one way again and it can be the other way again. It’s like a huge wheel. Do I feel elation when they admire me in the world? No. Above all, I’m a Jew. And I realize how they came to like me. If the Jews were to disappear, they'd also be happy.

“Today, the Jews are in less danger because Israel is strong,” he went on. “But would I rely on the world with respect to the Jews? No. I don’t rely on anyone in this matter.”

This quote, of course, does not tell you anywhere near everything you need to know about Sharon, his actions and his impact. But it is a good starting point for understanding why he did what he did, for better and for worse.

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