Harry Truman, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. These three leaders deeply loved their country, saw its defense against forces of evil as their highest calling and withstood ridicule, bitter criticism and in the case of the latter two, abject hatred. They were misunderstood and underestimated by foes, regarded more favorably in retrospect. They defined political courage — the willingness to sacrifice popularity and the office you hold for the greater good of the country you serve.
Of the three, Sharon, who passed away Saturday at the age of 85, eight years (almost precisely) after he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma, was also physically courageous. He repeatedly risked his life in battle, achieving victories in the 1967 and 1973 wars. Had he and the IDF not won, there would be no Israel and no opportunity (however slim) for peace between Jews and Palestinians. It’s a vivid reminder that generals and then hard-headed politicians make peace possible.
Sharon’s career nearly ended when he was forced to resign as defense minister after Christian militiamen’s killing of innocents in the Lebanon war of 1982. But his career was hardly finished. Indeed his highest political ambitions were realized nearly 20 years later when he became prime minister.
Like Truman (whose world was rocked when FDR died) and Bush (whose world was rocked when 3,000 Americans died on 9/11) Sharon underwent a transformation as well when he reached his country’s highest office. From heroic service as a general and champion of the settler movement to statesman, his legacy as a great prime minister and peace maker came in his final years in government. No one took more “risks for peace” than he, but his withdrawals from Gaza and from four West Bank settlements did not bear fruit. He nevertheless demonstrated Israel’s willingness to trade land for peace and to separate Israelis from Palestinians, allocating a state for each people all guaranteed by Israeli military might. What was a success was the construction of the wall to separate the West Bank following the Second Intifada. That virtually eliminated the non-stop terrorist suicide bombings between 2000 and 2003, which blew up restaurants, schools, buses, malls and even a wedding and a Passover celebration.
Many American politicians issued statements upon hearing of Sharon’s death. In contrast to the president’s embarrassingly empty and formulaic missive, Bush issued this heartfelt statement: “Laura and I join our friends in Israel and around the world in mourning the loss of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I was honored to know this man of courage and call him friend. He was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East. Laura and I send our heartfelt condolences to Ariel’s family and all who will dearly miss him.” Secretary of State John Kerry issued an appropriately warm and admiring statement, as did numerous Democrats like Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) .If not Obama, then others in his party recognize a man whose influence rivaled that of other great leaders such as Anwar Sadat.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said, “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a dream of peace in the Middle East, and he lived every day trying to realize it. He was a giant as a leader of Israel, a skilled warrior in battle and a valued friend of our nation. The United States and Israel are stronger partners in peace because of his efforts, and his loss is a great one. Our nation mourns his passing and joins Israel in honoring his tremendous legacy of independence, strength and peace. My thoughts are with his family and the Jewish people of Israel who he devoted his life to serving.” Speaker John Boehner’s statement recognized that “Sharon’s contribution to establishing and defending Israel’s independence is incalculable and his devotion to peace undisputed. The people of America and Israel have forged a friendship based on a common love of freedom, a relationship strengthened by farsighted leaders like Ariel Sharon.” And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who knows a thing or two about sacrifice, extolled Sharon: “Few people in our world have done as much for their countries as Prime Minister Sharon did for his beloved Israel. Few soldiers have fought as selflessly to protect their fellow citizens. Few leaders have shown themselves equal to challenges that were as dire to their nation’s existence. And few statesmen have made sacrifices that were as difficult, and were prepared to make more painful sacrifices still, for the sake of peace and the security of their nation. With the passing of Prime Minister Sharon, all of us should re-commit ourselves to the enduring security of Israel and to realizing the vision that animated the final years of this great man’s life — the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security.”
I highly recommend the Sharon obituary written by former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams. Abrams worked as closely with him as any American during the final years of his life. The Tower, put out by the Israel Project, has an excellent recounting of Sharon’s career as well as a shorter obituary. Israel Project’s executive director Josh Block e-mailed Right Turn, “Ariel Sharon was the embodiment of the Jewish state; a heroic protector of her people who will be remembered not only for his strength, but for his courage in pursuit of peace. Sharon’s towering contributions to Israel’s security and the special relationship between the US and Israel made both nations safer, kindling the bonds of democracy, liberty, tolerance and shared values that safeguard our lives and our freedom.”
Sharon’s life was as meaningful as any Israeli leader in its history. As AIPAC’s moving statement observed, Sharon was “a legendary statesman and soldier, who embodied the indomitable spirit and passion of the Jewish state. . . [and]an extraordinary military strategist whose brilliant leadership helped turn the tide and secure victory in the Yom Kippur War. Because he knew the price of war, Prime Minister Sharon was willing to courageously take risks for peace.”
In all of these statements save the president’s, the depth of admiration for Sharon and affection for the Jewish state was evident. You wonder if Obama possesses either.
For Israelis and non-Israelis he was a model of tenacity, bravery, and shrewd leadership. The United States and the West could use more of his kind. May his family, friends and countrymen find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.