Remembering the Legacy of Ariel Sharon
The Israeli Knesset recently marked the one-year anniversary of Ariel Sharon’s passing. After reflecting on his legacy, it appears that Sharon was to Israeli sovereignty what Lincoln was to America’s Union: the figure who cemented its authority against secessionist dangers for generations to come. When Ariel Sharon decided to take the dramatic step of disengagement from the Gaza Strip, uprooting the settlers and razing their homes and synagogues to the ground, he had one overarching motivation: asserting the sovereignty of the State of Israel over the settler movement.
Contrary to some common interpretations, it was not Sharon’s personal legal troubles nor some wide-eyed belief in peace that led him to turn his back on the settler movement that he championed for decades. Rather, it was his deep worry that some in the settler movement were treating the State of Israel as a vehicle in the service of their messianic dreams, rather than placing themselves in its service.
Sharon championed the settler movement when he believed that it served to build and secure Israel and its future borders. After all, that was precisely the manner in which he thought of himself – a man in the service of Israel. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, when the Arab world and the Palestinians remained staunch in their refusal to even negotiate any kind of border agreement, let alone peace, Sharon believed the settlers, even though they were religious, were continuing the proud labor Zionist tradition of determining Israel’s borders through frontier settlement. After all, it was settlement communities such as the Kibbutzim and moshavim that he was born and raised in, which ultimately determined Israel’s borders.
But when Prime Minister Sharon sensed that some in the settler movement were treating the State of Israel merely as a means to their messianic end, willing to endanger Israel’s future to occupy each and every tract of land mentioned in the Bible, the alliance reached its end. As an heir to the country’s founding Labor Zionism , Sharon was deeply Jewish and deeply secular. He had a strong historical sense of belonging to the Jewish people, as well as the Zionist secular sensibility of taking action to shape the fate of the modern Jewish people.
Sharon was deeply committed to the Zionist cause of securing Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, but like all Labor Zionists, when tough decisions had to be made, such as his role model David Ben Gurion’s wrenching decision to accept the UN partition plan, full sovereignty over limited territory was valued above limited sovereignty over full territory.
For most of his life, even as a young boy, Sharon struggled to secure the land of Israel for the people of Israel. But as Prime Minister, he realized that his greater struggle was to secure the sovereignty of the government of the people of Israel, by the people, and for the people. As a secular Zionist, he knew that no modern nation could stand united if some within it did not accept the rule of the government.
Therefore, he knew that his lasting legacy, greater than shaping and securing Israel’s borders, would be to ensure the coherence and strength of Israeli sovereignty within those borders. He knew that a house divided between those who accept the authority of the democratically elected government of the people , and those who put their own interpretation of God’s authority above it, cannot stand. So, to secure the union and unity of Israel, he had to demonstrate decisively that the State of Israel is sovereign over the settlers, rather than vice versa.
The Gaza Strip settlements were chosen because they were the weak link in the chain of the settler movement. Few Israelis believed these settlements secured Israel, few Israelis accepted the logic of 7,000 settlers living in a sea of more than one million Palestinians, and even the historical claims, unlike the ones in the West Bank – rich with biblical sites, were slim at best.
The disengagement from the Gaza Strip was carried out with the kind of ruthlessness and determination that only someone seeking to demonstrate the authority of a government could muster. Sharon achieved his true goal in the disengagement with Gaza. He demonstrated to the world, and above all to Israelis themselves, that their government can and will take all and any steps necessary to secure the sovereignty of the State of Israel, as the Zionist movement intended it to be.
Dr. Einat Wilf is a Senior Fellow with the Jewish People Policy Institute and an Adjunct Fellow with the Washington Institute. Dr. Wilf formally served on Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during her time in the Knesset.