Lion of Israel will not soon be forgotten

When a world leader dies, the media typically overflow with laudatory op-eds. The flaws and misdeeds of the departed are forgiven in the flush of national grief, or at least politesse.

So it is with Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who died last week at 85 following eight years in a coma.

No one with a history like Sharon’s can claim a one-note legacy. He was a complicated man, made in the mold of an old-style warrior hero. Like Gen. George Patton, who was similarly reviled and lionized, Sharon spoke his mind, brushed off political authority, believed he knew best and did not suffer fools gladly.

Both were military mavericks who got the job done while butting heads with politicians. But unlike Patton, who died shortly after World War II ended, Sharon had a chance to reinvent himself as a statesman following his military service. He served for decades in Israeli politics, eventually claiming the ultimate prize: prime minister, a position he held for just five years before his stroke.

The American Jewish media have treated his passing with respect. The Obama administration’s response was more measured, with the president focusing on Sharon’s “commitment” to his country and stopping short of calling him a great man.

Israeli media outlets, as is their wont, were less circumspect. Paeans to his service abounded, but so did criticism. Predictably, the Arab media lashed out against the man they call “the butcher,” mainly for his role in the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila — a crime for which he was exonerated by the Israeli courts, but which remained the major stain on his career.

There are lessons to be drawn from Sharon’s long and eventful life. To fight for one’s country — and he fought in all of Israel’s early wars — is a virtue, and no one disputes the man’s zeal in pursuit of national security. That was always his priority, one that at times led him to take brutal action.

Sharon’s record shows that war is a dirty but necessary business that cannot be rationalized via simple jingoism.

By leading the charge for the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza, he thumbed his nose at world opinion and showed that Israel can and will act on its own. But when as prime minister he ordered the complete Jewish evacuation of Gaza in 2005, despite domestic outcry, he demonstrated that he was not motivated by ideology so much as security concerns.

Like the country he served his entire adult life, Ariel Sharon was brash, headstrong, passionate and complex. He lived for Israel, and he died a son of the Jewish state he loved so well.