I met Ariel "Arik" Sharon on many occasions. One especially fond memory is spending three days together when, as Prime Minister, he was on a state visit to Rome. During that visit, I got to know Sharon up close, in official meetings and especially during "down time," when nobody else was in the room but Sharon and his staff. When he passed away at age 85 last month after eight years in a coma, one of the last founding fathers, a great statesman, had left us.
Sharon was not always so popular in the international community, nor was he always seen as someone ready to compromises for the sake of peace. Like other Israelis, especially former IDF generals, Sharon went through an ideological shift that broadly parallels the evolution of Israeli society in our 65 years of independence.
In its first two decades, Israel was a young, embattled nation fighting for its survival. Sharon in those years was a heroic, decorated fighter, first with the Haganah underground and then for a quarter of a century as an Israel Defense Forces officer and commander. A protégé of David Ben Gurion's (along with his friend, Shimon Peres), Sharon's formative years were spent fighting for his country. Wounded on the battlefield more than once, he embodied the ethos of the new Israeli, ready to defend himself and the Jewish people in its homeland. Politically, he could best be described as belonging to the right ("security") side of Labor. Although Ben Gurion famously criticized Sharon's "lack of truthfulness," he nevertheless held him in high esteem and wanted to name him Chief of Staff of the IDF. He represented the brave young generation that led Israel into the 1970's.
After the euphoria of the 1967 Six-Day War and the traumatic surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which both saw Sharon as a high-ranking commander, he-like the vast majority of Israelis-staunchly supported settling Jews in the newly acquired territories. For him-as for most Israelis-this was not a question of divine promise; he viewed the settlements as a security measure to protect Israel from future wars and to create a Jewish presence on the historic, disputed lands between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt.
In the early 1980's, as Defense Minister, Sharon found himself in a different place from most Israelis; they did not forgive him for what his perceived faults in launching, and his deception in expanding, the first war in Lebanon. When he was forced to resign after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, hundreds of thousands of Israelis breathed a sigh of relief and thought they would never see Sharon in politics again.
When, in the 1990's, Israeli society-encouraged by our military and economic strength-felt powerful enough to move towards reconciliation with our neighbors even at a high territorial cost, Sharon showed a unique sense of realism. In the early 2000's, the man once criticized as imperialistic, aggressive and even radical, became a vocal proponent of the view that Israel could no longer hold on to the ideal of "greater Israel" and reach peace with the Palestinians at the same time. The same Sharon who knew how to fight our enemies on the battlefield became-as Prime Minister-a realist who understood that a two-state solution was necessary for the sake of peace, for our security and for Israel's future. Sharon had made the same shift towards the center, as had many Israelis. Like them, he was not so much an ideologue as a man who fought staunchly for his nation's security and was willing to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to protect Israel and its future generations. Peace, maintaining Israel as a Jewish democratic state and above all, security, were bigger ideals for Sharon than land. The acceptance among mainstream Israelis that peace and security will only be achieved at a territorial cost lies at the heart of the two-state solution now accepted by most Israelis as the only realistic solution to our conflict.
Israel has evolved from a small nation under constant threat to being the tenth strongest country globally (in terms of economy, science, military and other parameters), according to the 2012 National Power Index. This month we lost one of the leaders who were instrumental in making Israel so strong. Like all Israel, I will miss "Arik."