Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Ariel Sharon, R.I.P.

by Elliott Abrams
January 13, 2014


Former prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon was buried today.

In Commentary Magazine, I offered my thoughts about the passing of a man I worked with closely during his years as prime minister, and some of the words President Bush had planned to say when attending Sharon’s funeral–in 2006. We had all expected that Sharon’s stroke in January 2006 would lead quickly to his death, and President Bush intended to attend the funeral.

In 2003, Bush sent Steve Hadley and me to see Sharon and listen to him: not to pressure him, or tell him what we wanted, but to see what he thought, feared, predicted, desired. We had a long conversation that day in his residence. Here’s some of what he said:

I took risks personally but never took any risks with the security of the State of Israel. I appreciate Arab promises but will take seriously only tangible performance.  For tangible performance I will take tangible steps.  Israel is a tiny small country.  From the Jordan River to Jerusalem is only 17.5 miles.  Before 1967, the Knesset was in range of machine guns south of Jerusalem. From the Green Line to Tel Aviv is 11 miles.  From the sea at Netanya to Tulkarm is 9 miles.  Two-thirds of the Jewish population lives is a narrow strip on the coastal plain.  Between Haifa and Ashdod, which is 80 miles, is two-thirds of the Jewish population, our only international airport, and most of our infrastructure.  All of that is overlooked by the hills of Judea and Samaria.

I am a Jew above all and feel the responsibility to the future of the Jewish people on my shoulders.  After what happened in the past, I will not let the future of the Jewish people depend on anyone, even our closest friends.  Especially when you saw the crowds cheering Saddam who killed even members of his own family and government.  With the deepest friendship and appreciation, we do not choose to be the lamb, but not the lion either.  I will not sacrifice the nation.  I come from a farm family who settled here but I deal with these problems with a cold mind.  I met with the Pope, who said this is Terra Sancta to all, but Terra Promisa for the Jews only.


As I say in Commentary, “Sharon left the political scene in his prime, not physically but politically: on top of Israeli politics, a leader whom opponents and rivals feared and whom everyone understood was almost unstoppable. Sharon was born on a moshav in 1928, two decades before the state. The Israel he leaves finally, today, is a tower of strength and stability in a region being torn apart. Many Israelis contributed their lives to that achievement, but very few can match the contribution of Arik Sharon.”

The full text is here.

Post a Comment 14 Comments

  • Posted by Adam


  • Posted by neville craig

    Your final words are: ‘…region being torn apart. Many Israelis contributed their lives to that achievement…’

    Have I misunderstood you, or is it just poor ‘American’ English?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    To Mr. Craig:

    Neither. The achievement of being a stable and strong country when all around you are in varying degrees of turmoil is considerable, and Sharon deserves some of the credit for that.
    In plain old English.

  • Posted by Dan

    Interesting, but Mr. Abrams omits two words without which no hagiography of Ariel Sharon would be complete: Gaza and debacle.

  • Posted by diana

    I opine that had Sharon lived, he would have brought peace with more Arab countries.
    I always suspected that after the Gaza withdrawal he intended to give a large part of the West Bank back to Jordan and Gaza to the Egyptians (if they accepted it).
    He was a smart ,dedicated leader, who made mistakes and also understood that to negotiate peace for Israel the country had to come from a position of strength. You know………………the strong horse policy.

  • Posted by Adam

    Yes, Dan, in a life full of controversial decisions for Sharon, the Gaza withdrawal was the last major one. Creating, as it has, a(nother) terrorist entity on the border of Israel; it must undoubtedly be cast as a security policy failure.

    However, the political results of the withdrawal are more complex.

    1. Israel can with complete confidence point to the negative results of relinquishing territory to the Palestinians without comprehensive security guarantees. Nor can the true face of Hamas be disguised behind ambivalent rhetoric any longer. Both these factors have a substantial and favorable impact Israel’s skeptical position in the current peace process.

    2. The Palestinain political body has been permanently, and irreconcilably divided after the 2007 defeat/massacre of Fatah in Gaza. The division has aligned Fatah and Israel together against Hamas, Islamic Jihad etc. This development is good for Israel, but obviously complicates peace prospects.

  • Posted by Adam

    3. The withdrawal demonstrated that settlements are removable. Yet the myth that ‘settlements are a major obstacle to peace’ mostly survives. Perhaps the myth that the settlement movement controls Israeli policy has been punctured though.

  • Posted by ah

    Adam – you don’t believe the settlement of over a half million Israeli Jews within the West Bank is an “obstacle to peace”? Explain this to me.

  • Posted by Adam

    The term settlements covers everything from apartment buildings in Jerusalem to former (1948) jewish villages now reinhabited like Gush Etzion, to lonely illegal hilltop outposts and the Jews in Hebron. There are large differences between all four, and Israel makes valid legal and historical claims which need considering. Therefore I would disagree with the statement that all settlements are an obstacle to peace. I would also disagree with the idea that no Jew could inhabit land in a new Palestinian state, considering 1.5 million arabs live in Israel.

    Having said that, it’s obvious that some settlements are a thorn in the eye to the Palestinians. But is it really such a big deal? What changed post-Gaza was idea that settlements could not be abandoned or forfeited by Israel. Significantly, in 2005, Sharon did this for nothing in return. He proved that buildings can be demolished and people moved despite huge protests. Effectively, this reduces the significance of settlements by several factors in the overall picture and puts to shame the (new and recent) Palestinian position that they won’t negotiate while settlements are built. It’s an excuse, but one which many still believe unfortunately.

  • Posted by ah

    Adam, you are changing the wording slightly.

    Now you are saying that not ALL settlements are an obstacle to peace. This statement I agree with, as there are some which could be evacuated more easily than others and/or the land could be swapped with a mutual exchange. Fine.

    I think the difference with the Gaza evacuation was that the ~8,000 settlers were there simply for the fact of being there. They were not considered to be in a military/logistically advantaged position. Conversely, many of the settlements in the West Bank have been explicitly placed in key areas to: 1.) stake claim to resources, mainly water, 2.) Cut off transit routes between major Palestinian cities, 3.) Encircle all of Jerusalem, 4.) Claim more strategic military areas.

    Removing the 8000 settlers from Gaza was a PR disaster. Trying to remove 500,000 is basically a non-starter at this point, thus why Israel is continuing to augment these numbers and the land area as quickly as possible, as they know the more they claim, the more impossible a real peace deal is. The West Bank is already too carved up to be a functioning state – excluded military zones, settlements cutting off transit routes, etc. So yes, the Palestinian demand that they won’t negotiate while settlements are being built (which is not actually a demand, as they are negotiating now while settlements continue) is completely logical, and in fact an obvious prerequisite.

  • Posted by Adam

    I have to say I disagree. You don’t need to remove all 500,000 settlers to make a functioning Palestinian State. Nor do you need to keep them for the sake of security or water. Indeed, current discussions about security in Jordan Valley reflect that a military and not a civilian presence is Israel’s main demand. Israel has signed water-sharing agreements with the Palestinians, and Jordan recently. All these issues can be worked out without leaving settlers in place.

    If you follow the Israeli discourse, the main opponents of abandoning settlements are the religious-zionist groups whose arguments are religious and historical and NOT about water and security. Sure a majority in Israel would agree that the country needs more defensible borders, but that does NOT equate to leaving every settlement in place. Given a choice between settlements and security, Israel will choose security every time.

  • Posted by ah

    Adam – On this one, I think we are generally agreeing. Not all 500,000 settlers need to be evacuated, as there are some settlements that could logically and logistically be swapped for land.

    However, many do – simply to make a Palestinian State functional. I see the “security presence” in the Jordan Valley as less of a sticky issue, as I think eventually something could be worked out along the lines of an international force maintaining security in the Jordan Valley.

    I disagree with your final statement slightly, I think some Israelis will choose security over settlements. I think others will choose more settlements over immediate security, in the mistaken belief that this will give them greater security in the long run. I think many people argue the opposite, that in the long run, more settlements equals less security, but that is a different discussion.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    Sharon was an extraordinary military commander and a daring political leader. He was one of the Israeli leaders that was most loyal to his people and his country, he really loved his nation and his nation loved him. Unfortunately, there is NO Arab leader who sacrificed his life to defend his own people like Sharon did. They just tyrannized their own people, massacred them, oppressed them, and impoverished them, that’s from Saddam to Gaddafi and Al-Assad!
    Yes, Sharon was one of the most murderous Israeli figures against terrorists. He succeeded in bringing security to both Israelis and Palestinians, where fought the terrorists by his own way, fought those who stole innocent children and recruited them to be suicide bombers or fighters in futile battles, those terrorists who employed the civilian population as human shields. So since then, we rarely have not heard about a suicide operations happened there?

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