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Ariel Sharon -- fearless warrior leaves complicated political legacy

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FILE -- In this Sunday Jan. 30, 2005 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pauses during the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office. On Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 the condition of the comatose former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has taken a turn for the worse, the hospital treating him said Wednesday. Sharon, 85, has been in a coma since 2006 when a devastating stroke incapacitated him at the height of his political power. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, Pool, File)AP2014

A wise man once said it is difficult to predict the future but harder still to predict the past. Such is the case with Ariel Sharon. Even eight years in a comatose state wasn’t enough time to define his niche in history.

Perhaps not for Hamas and terrorists in Lebanon: They and their supporters labeled Sharon as a baby-devouring, mass murdering, war criminal devil when he was alive; use your imagination as to what their talking heads spouted on Hezbollah’s Al Manar satellite TV or Al Jazeera when word came of his death.

For Israelis however, Arik Sharon’s legacy is complicated, very complicated.

The left never forgave then Defense Minister Sharon for enmeshing Israel into a quagmire in Lebanon in 1982, that while succeeding in routing Arafat’s PLO, also saw the internecine Arab Sabra/Shatilla massacre on his watch which led to Sharon’s resignation as Defense Minister.

Throughout his tumultuous life, when he felt he could make the decisive difference, Sharon, come hell or high water, took decisive action.

The right loved Arik Sharon, dubbing him the “bulldozer for good” for helping to establish Jewish communities from the Golan Heights, to the West Bank, greater Jerusalem and Gaza. They helped build the constituency that would catapult him to prime minister.

Later, his sudden 180 degree move to unilaterally hand over the Gaza Strip to Palestinians, forcing 9,000 Israelis to evacuate their homes, turned Israeli politics on it head.

His loyal supporters were left utterly bewildered and betrayed.

But as with much else in Israel, there is little that is totally black and white. Former MP, Yaakov (Ketzela) Katz, a founder and leader of the Settlement Movement said this in an interview with The Jewish Press:

“ I hate what Sharon did but he saved my life and I love him.”

Katz meant it literally. Mortally wounded during the bitter Yom Kippur War, medics left him to die to tend to lesser-wounded comrades. That was until his commanding officer—Arik Sharon intervened, calling in a helicopter to evacuate the young soldier under withering Egyptian fire…

So how to judge such a man?

I think the biblical narrative in the book of Exodus provides some guidance.

When Moses sees an Egyptian taskmaster about to whip a Hebrew slave, the narrative reports that Moses “…looked this way and that way and saw there was no man…” and slew the Egyptian.

Some Jewish commentators don’t interpret those words literally but rather that Moses saw no one else had the guts to intervene. The verse is saying:

“Where there is no man -- strive to be a man!”

That was Ariel (Arik) Sharon’s M.O.

Throughout his tumultuous life, when he felt he could make the decisive difference, Sharon, come hell or high water, took decisive action.

Sharon’s courage and daring literally transformed history during the epic 1973 Yom Kippur War, when a stunned Israel was initially caught by surprise by a two-prong Egypt/Syria attack on its holiest day.

After indecisive battles and heavy losses, the pivotal moment in the epic war came when Commander Sharon seized the initiative and led his troops across the Suez Canal.

With Cairo itself suddenly looking vulnerable, the Arabs began to understand that they could never defeat Israel militarily.

Sharon did not wait for approval from the chain of command. He was convinced it was the right thing to do and personally led his troops into battle.

He won big that day and changed the course of history, helping to pave the way for the historic peace mission Sadat made to Israel in 1977, and the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty in 1979.

Later, as Prime Minister, in 2004–05, Sharon ordered the wrenching Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

He did so because he believed it would help bring peace.

In the short run, he was dead wrong.

It is hard to see what benefits came from Sharon’s draconian Gaza gambit wherein Gaza was delivered on a peace platter to the Palestinians and all the Israelis got in return were thousands of Hamas rockets that continue til this day.

Sharon’s stroke never gave him the opportunity to react to the devastating results of his decision but one thing is clear: The warrior-politician would have taken responsibility for his actions. 

And perhaps he would point to one unintended but instructive consequence of the disengagement: The unilateral evacuation of 9,000 Israelis and the no-strings attached gifting of territory to the Palestinians lay bare a brutal truth for all Israelis, left, right, and center -- that no matter how the EU diplomats and Secretary of State Kerry try to spin it, Gaza is living proof that too many Palestinians, starting but not ending with Hamas, are unprepared to accept a Jewish State as their neighbor.

Ariel Sharon was no Moses. But to defend his beloved country, he never hesitated to put his personal security, reputation and very life on the line, time and again, when others couldn’t or wouldn’t act.

The "bulldozer" was never deterred by failure nor slowed by triumph.

In 1973, his heroic chutzpah helped save Israel. His Gaza gambit ten years ago failed to advance peace and tarnished his reputation. It seems then that even in death, Ariel Sharon will remain the man they love to hate -- and love -- for a long time to come.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.