Former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon gazes at the West Bank .
(photo credit: Reuters)
Israel’s indomitable lion Ariel Sharon, a bulldozer in war and peace, died on
Saturday, eight years after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage that left him
in a coma from which he never awoke.
Perhaps the most revered and often
reviled of the country’s politicians, perceived alternately as a peacemaker and
a warmonger, for decades his actions as a military commander and statesman
shaped both Israel’s self-perception and the world’s image of the Jewish
From the time he fought in Latrun as a young soldier to save
Jerusalem in 1948 to his orchestration as prime minister of the Gaza pullout in
August 2005, Sharon was at the center of the modern nation’s historical
And like the country he served for most of his 85 years, his
life was marked by controversy, deep loss, harsh defeat and miraculous
Sharon was always consistent in his desire to secure Israel’s
borders and was often photographed with a map in hand. During his tenure as the
11th prime minister he was determined to redraw those borders based on his
vision of the new strategic and demographic concerns of the 21st century. In
this pursuit he was not afraid to tear down his own physical, ideological and
political works. His health failed him before the task was
Strikingly, throughout his life, either or by chance or design,
much of what Sharon built or cherished was lost, destroyed or tarnished. His
ability to sustain loss made him fearless in his public pursuits.
the soldier had seen his friends die in battle by age 20. The family man buried
one son and two wives. The gallant military leader with a white bandage across
his wounded forehead played an instrumental role in capturing the Sinai desert,
only to return it to Egypt years later as a politician.
father of the settlement movement, Sharon claimed to know the driver of every
crane building homes in the territories. But then, as defense minister, he was
charged with the razing of the Yamit settlement in Sinai in 1982 and, as prime
minister, he ordered the destruction of the Gaza settlements in 2005.
leader of the Likud Party he had founded in 1973, Sharon catapulted it in 2003
from 19 to 40 Knesset mandates. But then, in November 2005, he crippled it by
bolting to form the centrist Kadima Party, taking a host of prominent
politicians from across the spectrum with him.
And as the avuncular elder
statesman widely – though by no means universally – perceived to know better
than his rivals how to steer Israel forward, he was well on his way to a third
term in office when his stroke on January 4, 2006, halted his plans to shepherd
the nation into a new dawn.
With his white hair, heavyset build,
grandfatherly smile and the reading glasses that occasionally slipped down his
nose, his image in his later years as well his conciliatory words belied his
reputation as an authoritarian political leader and a brutal military
For all the Israelis he alienated throughout his
larger-thanlife career, however, he was a man generally well-liked on the most
personal levels – friendly, courteous and solicitous.
Sharon never left
the spotlight for long after he came to national prominence as the dashing war
hero of the 1950s.
He was lauded as a master military strategist in the
’60s and ’70s. In the early ’80s as defense minister, he was blamed for the
failures and excesses of the Lebanon War as well as the massacre of more than
700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp at the hands of
As opposition leader in September 2000, his visit
to the Temple Mount was used by the Palestinians as a pretext for the second
intifada, and he was often a scapegoat for the continued conflict. Five years
later, when he was felled by illness, his sudden forced departure from the
political stage was perceived as a crisis for peace.
The sabra son of an
immigrant Russian farmer who preferred his own counsel to the communal decisions
of his neighbors, Sharon turned his own similar preference for solo leadership
into a diplomatic platform of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians as
prime minister. It was a move that broke a deadlocked period in the conflict.
But Sharon’s seemingly swift turnabout from the right-wing leader who coined the
famous phrase “The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv” to one who
evacuated the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, left his dizzied supporters gasping
at the betrayal.
Sharon liked to describe himself first and foremost as a
Jew and then as a farmer. In addressing the United Nations General Assembly in
September 2005 at the pinnacle of his popularity, he said, “My first love was
and remains manual labor: sowing and harvesting, the pasture, the flock and the
Circumstances intervened, he said, and instead his life’s path
led him “to be a fighter and commander in all Israel’s wars.”
told world leaders, he had a different purpose. He was reaching out to the
Palestinians in “reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict and
embark on the path which leads to peace. I view this as my calling and my
primary mission for the coming years.”
Hard-line right-wingers who had
long believed the prime minister was one of their staunchest advocates felt
abandoned by his sudden shift to the Center. His opponents argued that Sharon
was simply an opportunist, willing to pay any price and betray any ideal in the
pursuit of power. Some said his political shift was designed to deflect
corruption allegations, others that he had gone soft.
But Sharon himself
had long said that he was not married to one specific path or
“There is no advantage to the person who steadfastly maintains
the same position over the years just for the sake of consistency,” he said, as
early as 1977.
In his autobiography, Warrior, he referred to himself as a
“pragmatic Zionist,” a man of action rather than words.
When he believed
Jewish settlements created security, he constructed them. Persuaded that a
security barrier was needed, he built that too.
Zalman Shoval, a former
ambassador to the US and a long-time adviser, said Sharon was foremost “a
He belonged to a small group of similar-minded soldiers-
turned-statesmen such as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak, Rabin whose primary
consideration was security, rather than ideology, said Shoval. “So you never
knew how they would act under certain circumstances.”
than reactive, in this single-minded pursuit of his goals, Sharon pushed forward
with a confident winner-take-all attitude.
Back in 1974, The Jerusalem
Post predicted that this style of charging into battle would take him
“Arik Sharon only knows frontal attacks. That is how he fought the
Arabs, that is how he captured the Likud and that is how he intends to storm and
capture the State of Israel,” the Post wrote then.
It was not by chance
that in the 1970s, solders in his unit were already chanting, “Arik, king of
His longtime friend, journalist Uri Dan, said Sharon loved
challenges: “When he was told a mission was impossible, that is what he wanted
Like his biblical hero, Joshua, who blew down the walls of
Jericho with a ram’s horn, Sharon bulldozed his way past all military and
In the army, he dodged charges that he failed to
follow orders and relay accurate information to his superiors. In politics, he
brushed off his image as a has-been politician who attacked both friend and
Teflon-style, he survived unscathed allegations of financial
Former Likud MK Bennie Begin once said acerbically of Sharon
that he was as likely to head their party as he was to become a tennis
But at the nadir of Sharon’s checkered army career, after he
was forced to resign as defense minister in 1983 following Sabra and Shatilla,
Dan made a different prediction.
“Those who rejected [Sharon] as chief of
staff got him in due time as defense minister,” said Dan. “And those who
rejected him as defense minister will get him in due course as prime
Sharon said that his steadfast determination was rooted in his
childhood work on a farm.
In an op-ed article for the Post in 1999,
Sharon recalled a day he spent with his father at Kfar Malal.
working out in the field with my father on an intensely hot day as thirst
plagued us and thousands of flies and gnats buzzed around us, getting into our
eyes and noses. We, hoes in hand, continued to work. When my father Shmuel, of
blessed memory, who was an agronomist, agricultural scientist and also an
outstanding farmer, saw I was getting tired, he would stop a minute, point
towards the ground we’d covered and say, “Look how much we’ve already done. And
with renewed strength, we would continue work.”
It was this mind-set,
wrote Sharon, that came to characterize his own indomitable approach – to daily
life and to leading Israel.
“This has always been my way: to appreciate
what we have already accomplished and to look forward optimistically.