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Sharon’s Legacy: Lessons from Rabin’s

by Shmuel Rosner

January 13, 2014 | 6:31 am

Members of the Knesset guard carry the flag draped coffin
of former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon as his family members
walk behind during a memorial ceremony at the Knesset
Jerusalem January 13, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Talk of "legacy" is often fast and loose when great leaders pass. What constitutes the legacy is not always clear. Ariel Sharon had an eventful life, full of action, ups and downs, great deeds and terrible mistakes, noble endeavors and cunningly manipulative tricks. Even in his greatest hour, during the crucial days of the Yom Kippur War – when the forces under his command turned the battle around – Sharon didn't always show his good side. He was courageous, innovative, and most of all cool headed as the battle raged. He was also calculating and deceitful. Some would say it was the only way for him to achieve anything, because his colleagues were not as quick on their feet and didn't have his vision. Others would say he only did it because he wanted all the glory for himself and did not care to share it with his peers (that's how the Chief of Staff at the time, Major General David Elazar, explained Sharon's actions as the battle still raged).

The "legacy", then, is a complicated thing when leaders like Sharon are involved. Should it be his courage, his cunningness, or both? Should it be his lack of consideration for others' views? Should it be about 'always being determined', right or wrong? Yes, Sharon was determined and inconsiderate when he launched the first Lebanon War – not a great success. He was also determined and inconsiderate when he was tasked with finding housing solutions for a huge wave of immigrants from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990's.

Of course, a legacy is not just a matter of a man's (or a woman's) actions, but also a form of political football, very much so in the case of Sharon, where the fiercest legacy battle will be waged between those who want to emphasize Sharon the builder, the warrior, the hawk – and those who want to make him into a peace-maker. Obituaries in the foreign press and statements by foreign leaders tended to emphasize Sharon's change of heart and to highlight the dismantling of settlements as his greatest achievement. Their point is valid: this was his last great deed, and hence, possibly, the most recent expression of his true beliefs. Alas, in the battle over Sharon's legacy there is a good chance that the proponents of the late Sharon will lose to those want the legacy to be about the early Sharon.

Case in point: Yitzhak Rabin's legacy.

Rabin's story is different from Sharon's, but there are also many similarities. Both are members of the founders' generation, both are warriors, turned politicians, turned leaders. Both spent most of their career defending Israel militarily – as warriors and later as Defense Ministers – and both eventually went through a transformation that was stunning for many Israelis to witness. Rabin signed the Oslo Accords – and soon after was tragically murdered. Sharon evacuated Gaza – and soon after tragically collapsed.

In the early days following the Rabin assassination, the battle for his legacy was not even waged: the peace camp, the left, the proponents of Oslo, took over Rabin's memory. The assassination made it impossible for anyone who opposed Rabin's last actions to have any claim on his legacy. The annual ceremonies in his memory turned into peace demonstrations held by the shrinking left. Rabin the soldier, the commander, the hawk was almost cast aside, or seen only as a prelude to Rabin the man of peace.

Yet as the years passed – as the peace camp kept shrinking – as the second Intifada made 'Oslo' a derogative term – as Israelis became disillusioned about peace with the Palestinians – Rabin's "legacy" of peace became less and less alluring. It became less alluring to the public, to Rabin's family, and to many of his old friends. If Rabin is only remembered for the now discredited Oslo process, this might mean that he will only be remembered fondly and held dearly be an ever-shrinking portion of the Israeli public. It might make his legacy one of error and failure; rather than one of great deeds and achievements, as Rabin deserves.

So the gradual change in emphasis was quite a natural and expected one. The Rabin museum is hardly about the peace process – it is tagged as The Israeli Museum, and Rabin's career is presented, deservedly so, for what it was: the pre-state days, his participation in the war for independence, his long military career, culminating in the Six-Day War, his days as a diplomat, a politician, a minister, and, yes, also as a peace maker. Take a look at the webpage highlighting Rabin as "a soldier in the army of peace". Yasser Arafat is there, but front and center is King Hussein of Jordan. The uncontroversial peace agreement with Jordan is a much better legacy than the signing of an agreement with Arafat. The uncontroversial legacy is one that holds longer, and speaks to more people, than the actions that were then controversial and that have since been discredited even further.

Going back to Sharon's legacy, the story - as it is likely to unfold - seems clear: the disengagement from Gaza was highly debated in Israel back in 2005, and the camp of its proponents has not grown much as the years have passed. As I wrote not long ago, this is just one of the many events that ended inconclusively for Israel, and maybe years will have to pass before an ultimate verdict will be agreed upon by a significant majority of the public. About half of Israelis think that the "disengagement" was a mistake (a much smaller number would advocate a reoccupation of Gaza). This view isn't nearly as bad as the public's view of the Oslo accords, but building someone's legacy on actions that are supported by only half of the population can be tricky.

Moreover, the disengagement is remembered as a positive event mostly by Israel's left-of-center citizens, and Sharon's natural constituency of admirers is mostly on the right. For many years, Sharon was reviled by the left, demonized by it. To have the torch of his legacy kept mostly by members of this faction, to have it hijacked for political purposes (making the claim that more evacuations are needed more credible with the Israeli public), isn't going to give Sharon his place among Israel's greatest leaders. When Rabin's legacy was based on "peace" – and for that matter a peace that the public did not like– a large part of the population found it hard to view him as a true Israeli hero.

I don't think anyone would want that to happen to Sharon. Thus, I don't think the evacuation should be – or will be – the main component of the Sharon legacy.

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