Ariel Sharon was remembered this week as one of Israel’s last warrior-statesmen and founding fathers, whose military and political careers were woven into the nation’s triumphs and failures.
Sharon, who died on Jan. 11, fought in every Israeli military conflict in the first three decades of the state. He had been in a coma for eight years after suffering two strokes.
“He went when he decided to go,” said his younger son, Gilad, who has become the fierce guardian of his father’s legacy. Sharon, 85, died at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
As a military general, Sharon helped turn the tide of the Yom Kippur War with Egypt in 1973. As defense minister, he plunged his nation into the crucible of Lebanon in 1982, an engagement that nearly cut short his career after he was found to bear indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.
But Sharon would rise from the ashes of that calamity to effect an astonishing about-face as prime minister, orchestrating the unilateral evacuation of thousands of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip after spending the bulk of his career championing the settlement enterprise.
As prime minister, Sharon began the construction of Israel’s controversial security barrier in the West Bank. His overriding concern, Sharon always said, was to protect a nation built on the ashes of the destruction of European Jewry.
“I arrived here today from Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, the only place where Jews have the right and capability to defend themselves by themselves,” he said in a May 2005 visit to Auschwitz to mark 60 years since the Holocaust.
Lionized and scorned for his bluntness, Sharon was nicknamed “the bulldozer” both for his tendency to disrespect boundaries and his legendary girth.
Ideological loyalties meant little to the man known in Israel simply as Arik. In 1973, he helped cobble together the Likud Party from a coalition of interests that had little in common except that they had been frozen out of government for decades by the ruling Labor Party.
A generation later, in 2005, he bolted Likud to form Kadima, a centrist party that attracted lawmakers from Likud and Labor, including his old partner and rival Shimon Peres.
As agriculture minister in the first Likud government, from 1977 to 1981, Sharon vastly expanded Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2005, he led the disengagement from Gaza, overseeing the evacuation of nearly 10,000 Israelis from 21 communities in Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank.
“Sharon did what no one on the left was able to do,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the San Francisco–based magazine Tikkun. “Split the right, marginalize the extremists who believe that holding on to the biblical vision of the land of Israel is a divine mandate, and acknowledge that a smaller Israel with defensible borders is preferable to a large Israel that requires domination of 3 million Palestinians.”
Born Ariel Scheinerman in 1928 to Russian-speaking parents on the moshav Kfar Mala in prestate Israel, Sharon for much of his career was known more for his impetuousness than his pragmatism.
His bravery in the battle for Jerusalem in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence made the infantry unit commander the stuff of legend at the age of 20. He took a bullet to the stomach and, when all seemed hopeless, ordered his soldiers to retreat. He eventually crawled to safety.
Five years later, Sharon led a raid on the Jordan-ruled West Bank town of Kibya in retaliation for a terrorist attack that killed an Israeli mother and her two children. The raid killed 69 Palestinians, half of them women and children. Sharon claimed he hadn’t known there were people in the homes he was blowing up, but the stain marked his subsequent military and political careers.
In the 1956 war with Egypt, Sharon captured the strategic Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula after defying orders not to advance. During the 1973 war, he again challenged his superiors who feared crossing the Suez Canal was a risky maneuver that would incur too many losses. But Sharon prevailed, leading his forces across the canal and trapping an Egyptian army unit, a move many consider a turning point in the conflict.
With his penchant for insubordination making it unlikely he would ever secure the top military job, Sharon quit the army in 1972 — returning only to fight in the Yom Kippur War — and launched his political career. His ability to keep an unruly coalition in line helped Likud leader Menachem Begin win the 1977 elections, ending the hegemony that Labor leaders had enjoyed since the founding of the state.
Sharon was rewarded with the agriculture portfolio, ostensibly because of his farming roots, but also because he turned the ministry into a cash cow for the settlement movement. After another hard-fought Likud victory in 1981, Begin could hardly deny Sharon the prize he had sought for so long: the Defense Ministry.
A year later, in June 1982, Sharon launched Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to push back Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization from its mini-state in southern Lebanon. On Sharon’s orders, the army breached the 25-mile line the government said was its goal, pursuing the PLO all the way to Beirut, where it laid siege to the city.
“If he gets the chance, he’ll surround the Knesset with his tanks,” Begin reportedly joked of Sharon.
The Lebanon war also would give birth to one of the darkest stains on Sharon’s career — the September 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies. A state commission subsequently cleared Sharon, determining he did not know in advance of the massacre, but held him indirectly responsible, asserting that he should have anticipated and prevented the carnage.
By early 1983 he was gone from power. The exile would not last long, however. Sharon rebuilt his reputation, this time as a careful nurturer of alliances. He was an architect of the national unity governments that lasted until 1990.
When Likud returned to power in 1996, Sharon became national infrastructure minister and later foreign minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1999, Sharon became head of the Likud. The following year, Sharon visited the Temple Mount accompanied by a large escort of security officers, inflaming Palestinians and — some have charged — helping to provoke the second intifada.
The uprising derailed Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s efforts to accelerate peace talks, and Sharon was overwhelmingly elected prime minister in February 2001. In a flash, the sidelined statesman and disgraced defense minister, the soldier once marked as brilliant but uncontrollable, was in charge. His contemporaries who had kept him back were dead, retired or marginalized.
Sharon and President George W. Bush, who assumed power at the same time, had an affinity dating to 1998, when Sharon hosted Bush, then the Texas governor, on a helicopter flight across Israel and the West Bank. Their friendship culminated in Sharon’s greatest diplomatic triumph: the 2004 White House letter recognizing some of Israel’s largest West Bank settlements as realities on the ground and dismissing the demand for a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
In 2005, Sharon carried out one of the most astonishing moves of his career, abandoning his longstanding support for Israeli settlements by evacuating thousands of settlers from Gaza and relocating them inside Israel proper. Months after the disengagement was completed, he broke from Likud, much of which had opposed the operation, and formed Kadima.
His appetites, like his personal ambition, knew few bounds. He routinely feasted on grilled meats on Jerusalem’s Agripas Street, famous for its late-night eateries. He had gallstones and kidney stones, and suffered from gout.
In December 2005, Sharon suffered a mild stroke. Weeks later, in January 2006, a second stroke left him in a vegetative state from which he would never recover.
Here, too, Sharon defied expectations, holding on for eight more years, fed by a tube but breathing on his own. About a year ago, scientists reported that Sharon had exhibited brain activity in response to external stimulation, a finding that suggested he might have regained some ability to comprehend.
His medical condition began deteriorating significantly in recent days, prompting renal failure followed by a decline in organ function.
Throughout his career, Sharon’s motivations were a subject of considerable speculation. How could the man who had cleaned Gaza of terrorists in 1971 and helped sire the settlement movement wind up endorsing the 2003 road map for peace and later evacuating thousands of settlers?
“He was a great general, and he really loved the State of Israel. He loved each and every square centimeter of the land,” recalls Yaakov Katz, a former member of Knesset and chairman of Israel’s National Union Party, who credits Sharon with saving his life when Katz served under him during the Yom Kippur War.
Nevertheless, said Katz, who also served as Sharon’s head of operations in the West Bank when Sharon was minister of housing, the former general answered to no one’s call but his own.
“Some of the people said he was pragmatic, but I believe more that he viewed himself as a Caesar, that everything he did was right,” said Katz. “He was a man with a lot of power and strength, but not always used properly.”
As a soldier and statesman, Sharon always maintained an acute sense of the possible and the improbable. And unlike some Likud colleagues who were ideologically wed to the notion of Greater Israel, Sharon showed himself capable of putting strategic considerations above other loyalties.
“The Palestinians will always be our neighbors,” the man who once bridled at the mere mention of the word “Palestinian” told the United Nations in September 2005. “They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.”
Sharon is survived by two sons: Gilad, 46, and Omri, 49, who served in the Knesset from 2003 to 2006. Sharon’s first wife, Margalit, died in an automobile accident in 1962. Two years later he married her younger sister, Lily, who died of cancer in 2000. A son from his first marriage, Gur, died in a shooting accident in 1967 when he was 11.
Matthew Berger and Ben Sales contributed to this report, as did jns.org.
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