In truth, Ariel Sharon's journey ended long ago. Eight years have passed, almost to the day, since he was silenced by a stroke that left him lodged in the limbo between life and death. That state of ambiguity was strangely fitting for a figure who, after decades painted as either black or white – reviled by his enemies as the "butcher of Beirut", loved by his admirers as "Arik, King of Israel" – ended his life an unexpected shade of grey.
After a long career as his country's most fearless, some would say brutal, warrior – his father's gift to him on his fifth birthday was a dagger – and as patron to the settler movement, Sharon's final act was to dismantle some of the very settlements he had sponsored. In 2005 he ordered Israel's disengagement from Gaza, seized in the 1967 war in which Sharon had been a crucial, if maverick, commander.
When the stroke struck, he was poised to win an election that would, it was widely assumed, be followed by further withdrawals from the West Bank. The former general had unique credibility to do that – to fix borders that had remained provisional since the state was born – because he was drawn from Israel's founding generation. Sharon had fought in the 1948 conflict Israelis call their war of independence: despite having his arm in a plaster cast, he led a platoon. Even his name was given to him by Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion – turning the young Scheinerman into Sharon as if he were King Arthur anointing a knight.
Israel's current president, the apparently immortal nonagenarian Shimon Peres, was also a Ben-Gurion protege and key player in 1948, but he was never a soldier. The demise of Sharon means the 1948 combat generation has gone. And that matters more than you might think.
The explanation can be found in a new, immensely powerful book. My Promised Land by the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit is a personal history of Israel, one that begins in 1897 with a boatload of dreamers yearning for Zion, sailing to Jaffa: their leader is a British Jew, the Rt Hon Herbert Bentwich – the author's great-grandfather. From there, Shavit offers us places and moments that between them tell the story of the last remarkable century, whether absorbing successive waves of Jewish refugees from the rubble of post-war Europe or building the secret nuclear reactor at Dimona, from the triumphs of the settlers to the failures of the peace movement. The book is not without flaws. Critics have faulted the scarcity of women, Mizrachim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) and Palestinians in Shavit's narrative. There is no denying that his vantage point is that of Tel Aviv's male, liberal elite. He is an Israeli aristocrat, his link to Bentwich putting him on a par with those Americans who trace their origins to the Mayflower. By his own admission he is a Wasp, a White Ashkenazi Supporter of Peace.
But that does not negate the book's three great strengths. The first is context. Every time an interviewee is introduced – whether a great novelist or the unnamed engineer behind Israel's nukes – we are given their back story, the life that led to their views. You can still disagree with the most hawkish speakers, but it's useful to know the harrowing past of loss and violent bereavement – often but not only in the Holocaust – that shaped so many of them, the fear that transformed itself into a desperate longing to survive.
Similarly, Shavit resists the binary simplicities that afflict so much discussion of Israel-Palestine. His book will provide ammunition both to those who despise Israel and those who revere it, telling of its darkest deeds as well as its shining triumphs. Propagandists for both sides, who resemble each other so closely, could cherry-pick favourite facts to buttress their view – but both will end up disappointed. Shavit is a hawk on the Iranian nuclear threat, for example, but fierce in his denunciation of the post-1967 occupation. He slams Israel's hawkish supporters for failing to address the occupation and slams Israel's opponents for failing to address Israelis' deep fear of their own annihilation. To truly understand the country and the conflict, he says, you have to understand both: that "occupation and intimidation" are the twin pillars of the Israeli condition.
But Shavit goes further. He castigates his former comrades in the peace movement for focusing so narrowly on the territories conquered in 1967, as if returning them to the Palestinians will solve the entire conflict and bring blissful resolution. For, he insists, the heart of the matter is not 1967 but the birth of Israel in 1948.
In one chapter, he meticulously reconstructs events in the mainly Arab town of Lydda in July 1948, when soldiers of the embryonic Israeli army emptied the place of its Palestinian inhabitants and, according to Shavit, killed more than 300 civilians. In an unflinching account based on the testimony of those who did the killing, Shavit states baldly: "Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre."
Now, Shavit is not the first Israeli to stare the reality of 1948 in the face. He quotes a famously candid speech from 1956 in which Moshe Dayan did much the same. More than 30 years later, Israel's "new historians" excavated the archives, looking for the factual truth. Some of those described themselves as anti-Zionists, others as post-Zionists. But Shavit might be the first such voice from deep inside the Zionist mainstream to speak so directly of the events the Palestinians regard as the nakba, the catastrophe.
That represents a profound challenge to Israel and its supporters. Shavit is telling them, as an Israeli patriot profoundly committed to his country, that it can avoid this painful history no longer: it has to own up to it. His message to the Israeli left – and perhaps to John Kerry, now on yet another peacemaking trip to Jerusalem – is that it can delude itself no more that dealing with the relatively easy matter of the post-1967 occupation will be enough to bring peace. Ending the occupation is a worthy goal in its own right, Shavit says, but the real Palestinian grievance originates in 1948.
That thought fills the author with pessimism. He sees "no solution" to the clash of Palestinians who believe their land was stolen and Israelis who believe their collective lives depended on taking it. I think Shavit is right about the necessity for honesty, but wrong to believe this means a true peace is forever doomed. Much of what Palestinians demand is precisely the acknowledgement that in 1948 they did indeed suffer a nakba. If Israel could one day make such an admission, who knows what accommodation might follow?
The tragedy for both sides is that the right people to speak that truth were the founding generation. Those who fought the war of 1948 were best placed to close its wounds. An intriguing habit of Sharon's was to refer to places in Israel by their original, Arabic names – thereby acknowledging the truth that usually lies buried beneath the soil. Leading his nation to do the same could have been Ariel Sharon's final mission. They will have to do it without him.
Jonathan Freedland writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and presents BBC Radio 4's contemporary history series, The Long View.