Ariel Sharon’s development as a leader was very similar to that of Menachem Begin. In the final years of their political careers, both men came to realize the limits of relying on force alone.
These realizations led to historic decisions: While Begin gave up the Sinai Peninsula — an area three times the size of Israel proper — Sharon withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements, even though no one demanded this of him.
Both leaders demonstrated considerable courage in acknowledging that the national interest, as they had come to see it, clashed with everything they had previously believed and with the views of many of their followers. It was not for nothing that some of their erstwhile admirers came to regard them as traitors.
For decades, Sharon, the venerated military commander turned politician, had subscribed to a worldview that was simple and straightforward: The only thing that our Arab neighbors understand is force. We cannot reach agreements with them because they seek our destruction and will continue to do so regardless of any treaties we sign. Territorial compromise will only weaken Israel in Arab eyes and lead to more demands. As there is no real prospect of peace, we must rely on our military might, cling to land conquered during the Six-Day War and wait for the world to eventually accept our control over that territory.
Sharon was the right’s bulwark. He made highly hawkish prime ministers like Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu seem soft. He served in their Cabinets, never hiding his reservations about anything he perceived to be a concession.
He believed the whole world could be defied. He thought Jewish settlements should be set up at every turn in the West Bank in the hope that establishing such facts on the ground would prevent future Israeli withdrawals. He was blunt in talks with world leaders, including U.S. presidents, and believed that courageous Israeli leadership could bend the world to our will.
But some time after Sharon became Israel’s prime minister, he came to recognize just how wrong he had been. Israel is not North Korea. It is not isolated from the world. It depends on good international relations for its exports, for its security needs, for scientific and cultural partnerships, and for the preservation of the interests of Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
And he recognized the demographic problem that Israel faced. When he was elected prime minister, he was asked how Israel could continue to be a Jewish and democratic state if it had a Palestinian majority. He said he expected a million Jewish immigrants from the United States. It wasn’t long before he realized this was a pipe dream. He saw that the Palestinian majority was around the bend and that the world would not accept a Jewish state if the majority of people under its control were Palestinians. He also realized that this would be a situation that many people inside Israel could not accept, either.
This turnabout seemed quite sudden. He famously suggested that there was no difference between Tel Aviv and Netzarim, a small Jewish settlement in Gaza. Yet only a short while later he decided to pull out of Gaza in a resounding rejection of everything he had preached. He tore down all the settlements there, evacuated the synagogues and cemeteries, and withdrew from every inch of Gaza back to the 1967 lines — against the protests of his former followers.
At the time, I headed the Meretz party, which gave Sharon the Knesset majority that he needed, though we remained in the opposition. When the ultimate hawk finally ended the occupation of Gaza, we had to support him.
Until the very last moment, I tried to persuade him to withdraw in the framework of an agreement with the man whom the Palestinians had elected as their president, Mahmoud Abbas. In one of our talks, Sharon told me he did not trust the Arabs, and that is why he preferred a unilateral move to an agreement that he felt would amount to nothing more than a piece of paper. I regretted this deeply. I told him he was serving Gaza to Hamas on a silver platter. He explained that he saw no difference between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas.
Sharon was right to leave Gaza, but he was wrong not to do so as part of an agreement. Indeed, his unilateralism in some ways set back the cause of peace. On the Palestinian side, some said: Decades of negotiations brought no results, but terrorism forced even Sharon’s hand. In Israel, people asked: How can we make peace if even after we withdraw, they shoot at us? And the world still holds Israel responsible for what happens in Gaza. So while Sharon’s courage in withdrawing from Gaza and evacuating thousands of settlers is his greatest legacy, it is also a tragically ambiguous one.
Yossi Beilin served as a minister and deputy minister in five Israeli Cabinets and proposed the idea for what would become the Taglit-Birthright Israel program.