The memorials and tributes this week for Ariel Sharon had a surreal quality to them, as if Israelis had suddenly picked up where they left off with their controversial leader in 2006, when he was prime minister at the height of his power, and went into a coma after a series of strokes.
Sharon, a fierce warrior and military leader who was known as both the patron of Israel’s settlement drive and the man who uprooted those same settlements, never regained consciousness. He died Jan. 11 at age 85.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Sharon “a great warrior and military statesman” and President Shimon Peres referred to Sharon as “my close friend,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
At a state memorial service in Jerusalem on Monday, Vice President Joseph Biden recalled when, as a young senator, he met Sharon for the first time.
“He was not only a powerful man, he was a powerfully built man. And as a young senator, when you first met him you could not help but understand, as they say in the military, this man had a command presence. He filled the room,” said Biden.
Sharon was known for his girth and his fearless determination to reach his objective, whether it was military or political. For his tenacity, Sharon was given the nickname the “Bulldozer.”
Yet that blunt reputation belied Sharon’s tactical finesse. George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams met with Sharon numerous times in the early 2000s, when President Bush issued his “road map” for Middle East peace.
“President Bush liked him because Sharon was trying to do something,” said Abrams, now senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a canny and clever politician. He’d say, ‘I’m just a simple farmer,’ but he wasn’t just a simple farmer. He maneuvered his way through the Cabinet and Knesset and the Likud Party as no one else could.”
“He was commanding,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), recalling meetings with Sharon. “He had an incredible command of the room. He gave you confidence that he had a strategic plan in a diverse political climate.”
Tanks around the Knesset
Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, who gave him his Hebrew surname, Sharon. During Israel’s War of Independence, he was wounded in the battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem.
In the 1950s, with terrorist attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries on the rise, Sharon created and led Unit 101, which was charged with staging retaliatory raids.
He fought in the Sinai in the wars of 1956 and ’67. As a reserve general, he led a controversial crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.
From early in his service, Sharon was dogged by accusations that he exceeded orders. According to Israeli journalist David Landau, whose biography of Sharon, Arik, has just been published, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, those criticisms were politically motivated.
“In the Yom Kippur War there were accusations flying around between the generals and the political parties that saw themselves somehow connected. He was accused of stepping outside his orders by his political and military rivals and critics, of whom there were many,” said Landau. “And he claimed to his last day that these accusations were not well grounded.”
Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said Sharon was performing according to the norms of the time. “His superiors preferred to look the other way. They gave him orders with a wink and a nod.”
Those superiors also knew whom they were dealing with when they promoted him to general.
“People realized he was difficult,” said Rabinovich, who heads the Israel Institute in Washington. “But he had an original mind and was forward looking. They took a complex view of him.”
As a neophyte politician, Sharon brought a number of parties together to form the Likud bloc headed by longtime opposition leader Menachem Begin. When Begin became prime minister in 1977, he appointed Sharon agriculture minister.
In his new role, Sharon directed the government’s expanding settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon is popularly seen as the driving force behind the settlements, but Landau said that notion is incorrect.
“Both Begin and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir wanted to build these settlements and Sharon’s role was the executor and not the formulator of policy,” said Landau. “It was Shamir who claimed to the American administration that he had this tough minister building settlements. But in Israel I don’t think many people thought that.”
And Sharon was willing to take down settlements as well as put them up. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979, Sharon oversaw the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in advance of the Israeli withdrawal.
What Sharon wanted was to become defense minister, a post Begin was reluctant to give him. Begin reportedly announced that he was worried that if he put Sharon in charge of the army, one morning he might wake up to find Sharon had circled the Knesset with tanks.
“Sharon and Begin met in the men’s room and Begin said, ‘Well you have to understand, it’s just guys joking around,’ ” Landau said, referring to a quip about the Knesset-and-tanks story. “But that comment certainly resounded around the country.”
Begin finally appointed Sharon defense minister in 1981. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee to force the Palestine Liberation Organization out of rocket range of Israel’s northern border.
Sharon took the fight beyond the stated goal of 40 kilometers all the way to Beirut. With Israel now controlling security, a Christian Lebanese militia, apparently enraged by the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Israelis were outraged. The government appointed a commission to investigate the massacre. It found the government indirectly responsible. Sharon was accused of gross negligence and was forced to resign.
More than 30 years later, Rabinovich said the responsibility for the massacre still lies with Sharon. “He was the architect of the Lebanon War. He was not the fall guy.”
‘Too old, too extreme’
Sharon was tainted by Sabra and Shatilla but didn’t disappear from politics. In 1999 he wrested leadership of the Likud Party from Benjamin Netanyahu, who had just lost the national election to Ehud Barak and the Labor Party.
“The almost universal assessment was that [Sharon] had missed any prospect of becoming prime minister,” according to Landau. “He was too old and too extreme. The Likud people said to themselves that he is unelectable because he was too right wing, too pro-settlement. That in itself was part of the drama. So quickly he took over the Likud, became a credible leader of the opposition and then beat Barak in the election.”
The 2001 election came amid the Second Intifada, when Israelis were terrorized by car bombs and suicide killings. A year earlier, Sharon had taken a highly publicized tour of the Temple Mount. His appearance at the holy site was “highly provocative,” said Landau. Sharon’s aim was not to incite the Palestinians, but a political act in opposition to Barak’s policies, the biographer said.
Nevertheless, the day after Sharon’s visit, rioting broke out on the Temple Mount. The Israelis responded with live ammunition. “There was blood on the flagstones of the Temple Mount and from there the violence spread,” said Landau.
Sharon won the 2001 election and launched an offensive on the West Bank. He also began construction of a security barrier to impede access of would-be terrorists into Israel.
Sharon distrusted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (“He hated Arafat,” Elliott Abrams said.) and concluded that in the absence of a Palestinian partner, Israel would act unilaterally. He decided to abandon Israel’s settlements in Gaza and withdraw Israel’s military presence from the territory. The move was highly controversial.
“He was able to take enormous political risks,” said Abrams, author of Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. “He decided it was time to settle Israel’s borders, if not for all time then for decades at least. I think he planned to do something in the West Bank — pulling settlements back to the fence line.
“It’s important to remember how embattled he was in 2004 and 2005,” Abrams continued. “He said, ‘The left can’t do anything and the right doesn’t want to do anything and if I fail no one else will do anything.’ ”
Rabinovich said becoming prime minister changed Sharon. He spent his career “knocking on the door from the outside. When he was finally in the room, he was transformed. Sharon was in his mid-70s and there was a sense that this was about history and legacy, and less about politics.”
With the Gaza pullout, Sharon, always anathema to the left, was suddenly condemned by the right as well. More than one religious critic — including televangelist Pat Robertson in 2006 and the spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community last week — attributed the stroke that befell him to divine punishment for pulling Israel out of Gaza.
“The main criticism from people on the right is that he was elected on a right-of-center platform, and he never said he was going to get out of Gaza,” said Abrams. “In August 2005 they withdrew, without violence, which was extraordinary.”
In the upheaval over the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon left the political party he created and formed the centrist Kadima Party, where he was joined by progressive members of Likud and others, including former Prime Minister (and current President) Shimon Peres. On Jan. 4, 2006, he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma. He was replaced as prime minister by Ehud Olmert.
By that time, many Israelis had a change of heart about Sharon, said Landau.
“The night that he was struck down with a stroke, there was grieving, there was crying. To me, the remarkable feature of that evening was that among the people crying were people who, when he became prime minister, were so discomfited, they were seriously talking about leaving the country. Because they just knew that the Intifada in his hands would turn into a bloodbath. It didn’t happen. But that was the assumption, taking into account the prior image of Sharon.”
Sharon largely left the headlines until last week when it was announced that his condition had become critical and that his life was in danger.
Sharon, who always said he acted in the name of Israel’s security, leaves behind a complex legacy.
“He had a fairly grim view of the possibility of peace,” Abrams said. “You could have the absence of war. You could avoid war. But peace is another matter.”
See also: Arik’s charm offensive