By Benjamin Weinthal
January 11, 2014
Situated on a wall in the reporter’s room of the Jerusalem Post is a framed front-page of the daily’s 1977 story of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic peace visit to Israel. According to the account of Sadat’s arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, the then–prime minister Menachem Begin said, “Everyone’s here, waiting for you.” Sadat asked, “Is Sharon here too?”
Sadat shook Sharon’s hand and told him, “I tried to catch you when you were on the side of the canal.” Sharon’s reply: “Well, Mr. President, now you have a chance to catch me as a friend.”
Sadat understood Sharon’s greatness as a military leader. After Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sharon defeated the Egyptian offensive with a brilliant tank strategy that led to Israel’s army crossing the Suez Canal and getting within striking range of Cairo.
Sadat and Sharon were, without question, larger than life figures in Middle East history. Sharon, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, passed away today at the age of 85.
Sharon – in the vein of the British intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence – excelled as a Middle East military strategist. However, Sharon’s accomplishments dwarfed Lawrence’s WWI victories against the Turks. Where Lawrence sought to unify a fragmented Arab world, Sharon played a key role in solidifying the Jewish state and provided robust security to Israelis in a terribly rough neighborhood.
He was not infallible — he made mistakes in the 1982 Lebanon war, and erred in his unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. As the Middle East expert Jeffrey Goldberg noted, Prime Minister Sharon could have used the withdrawal opportunity to “have extracted important concessions from Palestinians,” but did not.
Sharon earned the names “the Bulldozer” and “Arik, the King of the Jews” for his efforts to stop Arab terrorism and jingoism. His business was to implement plans. He famously said, "Planning is something a lot of people know how to do, but executing, as you know, far fewer, far fewer.”
In short, he was a pragmatic politician and general who matched his rhetoric with action. He developed a strong alliance with American Christians worried about the security of the Jewish state.
While many European countries and politicians shamelessly and hypocritically slammed Sharon’s construction of a security barrier and other counterterrorism measures to stop Palestinian attacks, the efforts speak for themselves: According to Israel’s foreign ministry, suicide terror attacks numbered 55 in 2002, causing 220 deaths. In 2005, the last year of Sharon’s premiership, the data showed seven attacks, causing 22 killings. Two years later, in 2007, there were three deaths reported.
The Israeli historian Benny Morris offers more in a neat history of Sharon’s legacy.
Many European news organizations demonized Sharon during his tenure, in viciously hardcore anti-Semitic cartoons and articles. While large swaths of the European media and public fail to understand Israel’s security needs, Sharon plowed ahead and refuted their false assessments.
In the wake of spectacular levels of horrific violence among Arab countries, former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s piercing comment still carries tremendous weight: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”
Sadat took the lead and “caught” Sharon as a friend of peace. Will responsible Arab leaders renounce violence and do the same with Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu?
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal.