We should begin with the burial proceedings. Ariel Sharon, like many of his predecessors, asked not to be buried where the State of Israel designated burial plots for Prime Ministers and Presidents– Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. So far, only four Prime Ministers have been brought to rest in the state leaders' area: Levi Eshkol, despite his request to be buried elsewhere (Kibutz Degania); Golda Meir; Yitzhak Rabin; and Yitzhak Shamir. Four others – Ben Gurion, Sharet, Begin, and now Sharon- preferred other locations. Ben Gurion is buried in Sdeh Boker in the Negev desert; Sharet in Tel Aviv; Begin on the Mount of Olives; Sharon at his ranch, Shikmim. Many other dignitaries – Presidents, Knesset Speakers – also preferred other places. President Weitzman is buried in Rehovot, Ben Zvi in Jerusalem. Shimon Peres- still alive and well- has asked to be buried in Ben Shemen, where his wife Sonia was also laid to rest.
It is a personal choice motivated by sentiment, ideology and, possibly, some ego as well. For Begin, the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem's Temple Mount, was the natural choice. For Ben Gurion, the gorgeous location overlooking the Zin Valley was also to be expected. In both cases, as in all the others, the sentiment makes perfect sense, and it also makes the burial sites more special. Leaders – alone at the top – don't like to suddenly congregate post mortem. They fancy a place of their own in life, and in death.
Sharon is going to be buried at his home, where his wife was buried, where his son still lives. By making this choice, an image is sealed- that of the farmer, the settler, the man of the land – an image carefully cultivated for political reasons, but one that isn't preposterously far from Sharon's true character. Yes, it is possible to argue that he was a leader and a politician more than he was a farmer. But the decisions he made, the type of leadership he espoused, his way of thinking, and the fact that this is the place where he found peace of mind all make his farm the obvious choice.
He will be remembered mostly as a warrior, as a guardian of the state, as a brave and creative man, of great appetite and ambition, of great mistakes and the admirable ability to recover from them and to learn from them. Sharon made his greatest blunder in the 1982 Lebanon War. Coming back to the center stage, he never again repeated the two mistakes that made him a pariah for more than a decade: disregarding where the Israeli public stands, and failing to understand where the red-line of the American ally is drawn.
The first half of his last episode – his episode as Prime Minister - was generally perceived to be his finest political hour. Sharon was elected PM almost by default – with the temporary departure of Netanyahu following his failure at the polls, and the miserable term of Ehud Barak fast coming to an end, Sharon got the job on a silver plate. And he got the job at the perfect timing for him to shine. Israel, at the outset of the second Palestinian Intifada, needed someone at the helm who could project power without panic - who could retain confidence while demanding patience. Sharon was that man.
When Sharon first collapsed, in 2005, I wrote an article for Slate about Israel's crisis of leadership. "First Netanyahu and then the Labor Party's Ehud Barak were so disappointing, such juvenile prime ministers that they sent Israeli voters rushing back to older, more experienced leaders - the men who were already there when the state of Israel was born". As a young officer, I wrote back then, "Sharon was the protégé of the founding father of Israel, David Ben Gurion, a dictatorial, monarchial leader. Sharon admired him, and still does. And to some extent, Sharon is now becoming Ben Gurion's true political successor, holding the torch of the founding generation for a little longer, before nature makes it impossible to keep it burning".
Just weeks later, Sharon collapsed for the second time and could no longer hold the torch for us. It had to be passed on to the next generation- first to Ehud Olment, whom I tagged as "a politicians' politician", one who was never the real choice of the people; and later to Netanyahu, who, eight years after Sharon, still holds it firmly. Even the "next generation" is now getting older, though, even the "next generation" is towering over what seems to be the "next next generation". Israel's leadership crisis is not yet over, and quite expectedly so. "It's customary for countries to go through a crisis when the first generation is gone", I wrote in that article about Sharon. The last round of elections, when Netanyahu was the sole viable candidate for the top job, is a good illustration of the state of Israel's leadership.
Sharon did not really appreciate Netanyahu. He used to call him, derogatively, "the model" (‘HaDugman’ in Hebrew). Still, it's possible to assume that Netanyahu proved more resilient than Sharon would have expected. It's also possible to assume that Sharon, like most great leaders, would have viewed any successor with a critical eye. Netanyahu is who we got as a leader, and Sharon, fading into the background a long time ago, is now officially a historical figure.
His greatest achievement as a leader?
A new book by David Landau – about to be published in the US – sees Sharon's last act of withdrawing from Gaza and dismantling the settlements as the culmination, the zenith, of his career. According to this narrative, Sharon, by forcing thousands of settlers to be evacuated from their homes, was on a march to correct another mistake of his – the building of settlements. Landau makes a powerful argument to support his view (and I should come clean by mentioning that I am the editor of Landau's Hebrew version of the book), but one that is naturally affected by ideology. The counter-argument would make Sharon's last act an outlier, a miserable slip which Sharon didn't last long enough to correct. In the counter-narrative of Sharon's long journey, his battle against terrorism as Prime Minister, his crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war, and his heroic commando raids of the 1950s are his true achievements- achievements so great and with such impact that not even the ultimate mistake of "disengagement" can discredit the leader behind them.