"Who is that masked man?" I joked under my breath during the Disengagement, as I heard yet another comparison made of Ariel Sharon to the late French President Charles de Gaulle. The fact that then-French President Jacques Chirac had told Israel’s Prime Minister the previous month that he was not welcome in France, for having encouraged his country’s Jews to immigrate to Israel, made this stream of de Gaulle comparisons even more annoying. Whether it was out of a desire for a strong conservative leader who could reassure Israelis that they could conclude a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, or a yearning for a strong, conservative leader who would protect all Jews, was unclear.
Throughout his tenure as Israel’s Prime Minister, at home or abroad, Sharon's persistent identification with de Gaulle was a tremendous source of strength and legitimacy for his large than life leadership. Lauded the world over for his steely resolve, his stereotypically brusque, Israeli independence, and his ability to consistently deliver Israel from it’s enemies, the founder of two of the country’s two most significant political parties of the last generation - Likud and Kadima - was treated almost as though he were the closet thing to a national superhero: a reincarnation of the founder of the Fifth Republic.
As awkward as this might sound, there are very simple reasons for asking this question, particularly in the wake of the Six Day War. Why, given the trauma associated with the subsequent rupturing of Israel's alliance with France, would Israelis choose a French icon like de Gaulle to model their ideal leader after, especially considering how snubbed they were made to feel by the late President’s behavior in the wake of the victory? If Israelis were really as upset by de Gaulle's action as to consider it anti-Semitic, the verdict being passed on Sharon as though he were de Gaulle generates more questions than it answers.
In the years following his assumption of the Prime Minister’s office, when comparisons between Sharon and de Gaulle reached critical mass, could this comparison have served as a sign of possible disrespect? That, Israeli politics had sunk to such a profound low, that Israelis had put their faith in a murderous thug accused of war crimes to lead them out of the Occupied Territories? Was it an expression of genuine appreciation that Israel, like France, could produce soldier-statesman who embodied a similar combination of leadership qualities? Or were such comparisons simply empty rhetoric used to reassure Diaspora Jews that Israel was indeed governed by a European style aristocracy?
In every case, the answer is affirmative. For liberals, like de Gaulle, Sharon was an ambitious army officer with anti-democratic tendencies, guided by a similar combination of nationalist and security conservatisms, and an enormous ego. Yet, despite such obviously disrespectful views of his character, Sharon was to be tolerated because he grew willing to assimilate progressive foreign policy objectives, such as withdrawing from Gaza, and determining a final international border, irrespective of how problematic both the withdrawals, and the security wall he began building on Israel’s eastern frontier would end up being.