Ariel Sharon was the most polarizing politician in Israeli history.
He was loved — even idolized — by many Israelis, particularly lower middle class Sephardi Jews, for his lack of political correctness, for his toughness in dealing with Israel’s sworn enemies in the Arab world.
His followers’ passion for Sharon could be best seen when he came to areas where they were concentrated, like Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s Jewish outdoor fruit and vegetable market.
As a reporter, I witnessed their fanatical devotion to Sharon as he campaigned there in elections in the 1980s.
Cries of “Arik, Arik” always greeted his entry into the market. As he walked through, smiling and waving to his supporters, who included both the owners of the stalls and ordinary workers in the market, business came to a halt. Everyone strained to see their political hero; vendors often offered him a piece of fruit as he walked by. And his visits were always accompanied by shouts of “Arik, melech Yisrael” (Arik, the king of Israel).
No other Israeli leader, not even the legendary Menachem Begin, could command such devotion. What they loved about him most was his decisiveness. He was a the ultimate Israeli bitsuist, a doer, a man of action. After all, it was Sharon who had formed and led the commando group that retaliated against Israel’s Arab neighbors for terrorist incursions launched from their territory during the 1950s; Sharon who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, had found a way to turn military defeat into victory by leading his troops across the Suez Canal, thus cutting off the Egyptian army in the Sinai; Sharon who had “bulldozed” any opposition to settlement construction as agriculture minister in the government of Menachem Begin and later had been defense minister when Lebanese Christian militiamen slaughtered Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla. (In 2000, it was his controversial visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that allegedly sparked the second Intifada [uprising].)
It was this macho attitude, his willingness, as they saw it, “to stand up to the Arabs as a proud Jew” that endeared him to his followers.
On the other side, no politician was more hated or feared by those on the political left, who accused him of scuttling hopes for peace with his push for settlements and hostility toward the Arabs. Some Israelis even feared that he and his fanatical supporters might one day become a threat to Israeli democracy.
Ironically, Sharon is today reviled by many settlers — earlier, among his most vociferous supporters — for his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 when he was prime minister, a move that his former political enemies applauded.
Aaron Leibel is WJW’s copy chief.