Ariel Sharon in death, as in life, presents a challenge for us.
By advocating a bold, self-asserting Jewish settlement movement, with or without a peace agreement, Sharon shattered the image of Israel as a country that places the achievement of peace with its neighbors above all other national goals. This triggered a long-term rift with Diaspora Jewry, especially in the United States, where the cause of peace had become the core not only of Jewish Zionism, but even of Judaism itself.
For the Jews of Israel, however, Sharon represented an ideal no less impressive — even vital for the survival and success of the country they had shed so much blood to build. He represented independence, in its deepest sense.
Deep down inside, Israelis still see their own national survival as somehow miraculous, defying the laws of gravity. And that survival is owed to a founding generation of larger-than-life figures — David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin — who created something from nothing, saw possibility through a veil of blood and devastation, acted boldly and in defiance of international demands, and handed a whole country to the next generation on a platter.
Of those founders, the only two who remained active a decade ago were Sharon and Shimon Peres, archrivals in politics until, in 2005, they joined together under the banner of Sharon’s new Kadima party, for the purpose of unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza. The move, known as “disengagement,” was a stroke of political genius, embodying everything desired by the newly emergent Israeli center: the bold, security-minded unilateralism of the right, combined with the territorial sacrifice of the left.
There would be no presumption of peace this time — disengagement was, if nothing else, a glaring repudiation of the Oslo Accords — but there could be a reversal of the vilified settlement movement nonetheless.
I visited Kfar Darom, the largest settlement in Gaza, on Independence Day 2005, just a few months before it became rubble. I had spent much of my adult life supporting the settlements, but by that point, Kfar Darom had become a magnet for the movement’s most outlandish fruitcakes. The folks who had taken over the town in the months before disengagement were old-fashioned messianists, radicals with bullhorns in their beards and demonic sunshine in their eyes.
I knew they were but a sliver of the settlement movement, but I also knew that their refusal to grant the world some nuance, their divine arrogance, had taken the entire idea of settlement outside the borders not just of geographical Israel, but of cultural and political Israel, as well.