I heard Ariel Sharon speak on several occasions, but I only met him once.
In 1996, as director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, I set about scheduling a speaker for the annual address in Dayan’s memory. In practice, the Center’s Israeli board of governors, composed largely of Dayan’s old friends, selects the speaker. That year, we held the board meeting at the museum-home of David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv. The subject of the address came up, and someone floated the name of Ariel Sharon.
At the time, Sharon was minister of national infrastructure in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and he was still very much a bête noire. At the mention of his name, my eyes immediately turned to Yael Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s daughter and a Labor party politician active in Peace Now. To my surprise, she pronounced Sharon to be the perfect choice as her father’s memorial speaker. I realized then, as I’ve realized many times since, that the old Israeli elite is bound by ties that go much deeper than the party politics of the moment.
So Sharon got the invitation, and he accepted it. For my academic colleagues, it was as if I had summoned Satan from the depths. While I awaited Sharon’s arrival on the appointed evening, I scanned the audience and saw few if any of them in attendance. (Yael Dayan wasn’t there either.) I recall feeling relieved that the honor of introducing Sharon had been claimed in advance by Zalman Shoval, a board member. I would have been hard-pressed to come up with enough admiring words.
Sharon came, spoke, and went. The speech got some coverage on an inside page of a newspaper, but it wasn’t a headline event. Yet it stayed with me, as did another Sharon speech I attended in Washington during those same years. Listening to Sharon, I didn’t hear a radical ideologue bent on “politicide” of the Palestinians—his usual portrayal in Israeli academe. I heard a hard-nosed former soldier concerned first and foremost with Israel’s security and preservation as a Jewish state.
The second Palestinian intifada resurrected Sharon, thanks to people like me. I had supported the Labor-led peace process, knowing it would involve far-reaching compromises. I voted for Ehud Barak in 1999. But when Yasir Arafat tried to leverage Israel by promoting mass terrorism, he changed my mind. I thought it important to erase from the record those concessions that had been offered by Israel at Camp David and, more importantly, at Taba. I saw Sharon as personifying strength, determination, and a willingness to act boldly, not in pursuit of a utopian “New Middle East,” but of Israel’s national survival. So I cast my ballot for him in 2001, as did a decisive majority of Israeli voters.
The situation was very different in my university setting, where I was a lone soul, both then and in 2003, when I voted for Likud. Since the disengagement and Sharon’s creation of Kadima, I’ve run into people on campus who’ve announced their intention to cast a ballot for the man they once reviled. Now they never will. No elected leader ever meets all expectations, and to believe that they might is to subscribe to a dangerous sort of secular messianism. But of all the votes I’ve cast, I least regret the two I cast for Ariel Sharon, and I would have cast another one.
As to the future, I claim no special insight.