The Complexity of Sharon’s Leadership
Most of us were in our early 20’s and 30’s when we walked through the gates of the Prime Minister’s Office, accompanying Ariel Sharon to his first days in office, in March of 2001. Those were difficult days for Israel, with the Second Intifada surging, and hundreds of dead in horrific terror attacks.
Sharon’s Chief of Staff, who orchestrated an orderly transition of power from the previous administration, had two important directives for the immediate staff members joining Sharon as he started his tenure as Israel’s 11th Prime Minister. The first was: putting on a suit and tie. We were no longer political operatives working on a campaign, but serving the Prime Minister of Israel, and should dress accordingly. The second directive was that our personal and party ideology had to be checked at the door. We were now the servants of all Israeli citizens, including the ones who did not vote for Sharon.
This approach was indicative of the days to come. Sharon had to overcome decades of mistrust and often open hostility from individuals and constituencies who had vehemently disagreed with him in the past, and who saw his rise to power as no less than a disaster for Israel. In his patient way, and with much personal charm, Sharon was able to create and maintain a dialog even with his most fervent opponents. I remember one particular example where he spent over an hour in private conversation with a less-than-supportive Member of the U.S Congress, who rigorously criticized Israel’s actions in Judea and Samaria. Sharon insisted on engaging with him, despite the fact that a striking majority of the House of Representatives was clearly very pro-Israel, and deferred to the internal policies of our democratically elected leaders. A similar dynamic evolved between Sharon and the leadership of the Arab Israeli community in Israel. In quiet and patient dialog, trust built and progress was made.
As time went by, Sharon also changed. Not many people can learn new things in their 70’s, but from the seat of the Prime Minister, Sharon was able to see the complexity of our society more clearly, and he allowed new data to change him. A nation born from the ashes of the holocaust, fighting for its survival from the get go, but also a nation already of great achievement and still more potential. Sharon saw a nation rich with ingenuity, diversity, and a deep desire to integrate and be accepted into a global community. He saw that the many years of conflict, despite the fact that we were strong and right to fight, had eroded Israel’s inner resilience, and that this was unsustainable for generations. He also believed he was the only one capable of changing the course of history at that point in time. There are many alternative explanations for his personal transformation — some are mean spirited, and some are simply wrong — but I know and believe that these realizations were the main drivers that moved Sharon to boldly carve a way to the center.
With the left driven by guilt, and the right driven by fear, Sharon, who had neither, decided to act. It was only 8 years ago, and most people forget that the disengagement from Gaza and the North West Bank was only the beginning of a much larger plan. A plan to stabilize Israel’s international situation, reduce conflict with the Palestinians, and transfer more responsibility to their elected institutions. And Sharon’s plan was supported by a large majority of the public, and the Knesset, and approved by the cabinet, and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. The closest to Sharon still believe history would have played out differently if he had had his chance to complete this master plan. Even as a standalone act, I believe Sharon’s disengagement should be viewed with a much longer view, evaluating the consequences over decades, not years.
Another strong example of Sharon’s complex and strategic perspective on core issues can be found in his views on the Jewish Diaspora and also has to do with my own experience as a member of the Wexner community. During my final interview for the Wexner Israel Program, Former President of the Foundation Larry Moses asked me if I shared Sharon’s perspective on the prominence of aliyah as the ultimate Jewish call for action. I honestly do not remember what I answered, but in hindsight, I was sorry I did not have this quote with me, from a speech Sharon made in 2003 to Birthright participants:
“I would like to talk to you as a Jew, and I am first of all a Jew, and for me to be a Jew, that’s the most important thing. I would like you to know that Israel is not only an Israeli project. Israel is a Jewish, worldwide project. And it’s yours no less than ours, and you are responsible for what will be going on here. No, you don’t have to carry the entire burden on your shoulders, but it’s your responsibility, because what happens here in the future of the State of Israel will affect Jewish life all around the world”.
So yes, Sharon believed in aliyah as an act that would guarantee the long term survival of the Jewish people in our land, but also saw the Jewish world in its complexity, and valued the importance of Jewish communities abroad, along with their involvement and strong partnership in the Israeli experiment.
May he rest in peace.
Oren Magenzy, an alum of the Wexner Israel Fellowship, Class 18, served for more than ten years on the senior staff of two Israeli Prime Ministers – Ariel Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert. He was special assistant to the Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Senior Assistant to the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office and ultimately the Prime Minister’s Advisor and Liaison to the Knesset. Upon completing his Mid-Career program at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2007, Oren was named Founding Director of the Agency for Economic Development of the Arab Communities in Israel. He currently resides in Boston, MA with his wife and son. Oren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.