A contradictory life

After strongly opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state for most of his political life, Sharon dramatically changed course.

Sharon sits with his wife Lily (photo credit: GPO)
Sharon sits with his wife Lily
(photo credit: GPO)

ARIEL SHARON, Israel’s 11th prime minister, will be remembered as the daring general who turned the tide in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the overreaching defense minister who led Israel into the divisive 1982 Lebanon invasion, and the once hawkish national leader who, in the summer of 2005, carried out the unilateral evacuation of soldiers and settlers that ended Israel’s 38-year-long occupation of the Gaza Strip.

Sharon, who in all likelihood would have been reelected in elections scheduled for March 2006, suffered a major stroke two months earlier from which he never recovered. After eight years in a coma, he died on January 11. He was 85.
Ariel (Arik) Sharon (Scheinerman) was born on February 26, 1928 in Kfar Malal, a small farming village north of Tel Aviv.
His hawkish views on the need for a strong Israel ready to defend itself at all times were formed at an early age. Sharon’s father Shmuel (Samuil) instilled in his son a farmer’s respect for land and the need to protect it. “When the land belongs to you physically, when you know every hill and wadi and orchard, when your family is there,” Sharon wrote in his autobiography, “that is when you have power, not just physical power, but spiritual power.”
Sharon grew up under the constant threat of attack by marauders from surrounding Arab villages. At 13, armed with a club and dagger, he helped to patrol the fields at night.
A year later, he joined the fledgling Jewish underground army, the Hagana.
When the 1948 War of Independence broke out, Sharon quickly caught the eye as an outstanding field commander. In one of the battles for Latrun, part of a crucial Israeli effort to lift the siege on Jewish Jerusalem, he sustained severe abdominal injuries, but still managed to extricate most of his men from an almost impossible battlefield situation.
After the war Sharon served in a number of intelligence posts and as commander of the Golani reconnaissance unit. In 1952, he left the IDF to study Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But, in July the following year, he was called away from his studies to set up a special commando unit to deal with terrorist incursions from Jordan and Egypt by Palestinian Arab irregulars, known as fedayeen.
The handpicked force, Unit 101, carried out a series of reprisal raids that kept the fedayeen off balance and helped restore confidence in the country’s ability to meet the terrorist threat. Its bold modus operandi transformed the fighting methods of the Israel Defense Forces, putting the emphasis on daring, initiative and attack. Unit 101 established two cardinal principles for the IDF as a whole: carry out the mission whatever the cost and don’t leave wounded on the battlefield.
Commanding 101, however, revealed character traits that would afflict Sharon in later life: a headstrong belief in his own better judgment and a tendency to exceed orders. The most serious example was an October 1953 raid on the West Bank village of Qibya, where Sharon’s men blew up over 40 houses and left 69 civilians dead. At this time Sharon also developed a reputation for twisting the truth. Then prime minister David Ben-Gurion reportedly used to ask him if he had stopped lying. Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion believed Sharon to be the most naturally gifted soldier Israel had produced.
Unit 101 operated for only five months, after which it merged with the IDF’s elite paratroop corps, with Sharon in overall command. In the October 1956 Sinai campaign, Sharon again overstepped his authority when some of his men moved into the Mitla Pass, despite orders not to engage the Egyptian enemy. In what many saw as a needless battle, 38 paratroopers were killed. The Mitla incident held Sharon’s military career back for several years. Denied a major field command, he studied tank warfare at the Camberley Royal Staff College in England in 195758, and from 1958-1962 headed the IDF’s infantry training school.

At this difficult time in his military career, Sharon suffered a personal tragedy.

In March 1962, his wife Margalit (Gali) was killed in a car crash on the road to Jerusalem. There was speculation on the degree to which she might have been responsible for the accident. Soon after Margalit’s death, Sharon married her sister Lily, with whom he had two sons, Omri and Gilad.
The headstrong officer’s fortunes in the military began to change when Yitzhak Rabin became chief of staff in 1963, appointing Sharon chief staff officer in northern command. Despite frequent clashes with superiors, Sharon’s brilliance as a field commander was never in question. In the 1967 Six Day War, he was appointed to lead one of three lightning armor thrusts into Sinai, which effectively destroyed the Egyptian army. Sharon’s direction of a complex tank battle at Abu Ageila is still studied at military schools worldwide.
Soon after the war, personal tragedy struck again, when Gur, Sharon’s only son with Margalit, died in a shooting accident a few months before his 11th birthday.
In 1970, despite differences with then chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev, Sharon became head of southern command, charged with combating a rising wave of terror in occupied Gaza. His methods, although unorthodox, were highly effective. He widened the streets to make it more difficult for terrorists on the run to slip away, and he used widths of rope to register precise dimensions of Palestinian homes to make it easy for his men to detect false walls concealing arms or fugitives.
Within a year, the wave of terror subsided.
Although widely hailed as one of Israel’s most talented field commanders, with an uncanny ability to read a battle, Sharon the soldier was difficult to get along with and frequently quarreled with superiors.
He had run-ins with at least six chiefs of staff: Moshe Dayan, Haim Laskov, Zvi Tzur, Haim Bar-Lev, David Elazar and Mordechai Gur. Some became bitter enemies. And some of the clashes affected his chances of promotion.
IN 1973, when he realized that he would never be made chief of staff, Sharon left the army and turned to politics. Within months, he had unified five right-wing parties, Herut, Liberals, the Free Center, the State List and the Movement for Greater Israel to form the present-day Likud, headed by Herut’s Menachem Begin.
The formal founding of Likud was on September 14. Just over three weeks later, Sharon found himself back in uniform, after the surprise outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on October 6. It was his daring crossing of the Suez Canal on the night of October 15-16 that turned the tide of battle and made him a national hero.
“Arik, king of Israel,” his right-wing political supporters would chant, and Sharon, the swashbuckling general with a white bandage around his head, became an internationally recognized icon.
In 1974, Sharon was back in politics, elected to the Knesset on the Likud slate.
Although he had studied law at Tel Aviv University, completing his degree in 1966, he found the routine work of the legislature tedious and resigned after less than a year. In 1975, Rabin, then prime minister, appointed Sharon as his adviser on counterterrorism.
In the run-up to the 1977 elections, Sharon formed his own party, Shlomzion, winning just two seats in the Knesset.
Ironically, the Likud he had unified four years earlier came to power without him.
Begin quickly brought him back into the fold and made him minister of agriculture, a post Sharon used to establish no fewer than 64 new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in just four years.
In the run-up to the 1981 election, he organized day trips – known as “Sharon’s Tours” – to show people what had been accomplished, and how vulnerable Israel would be if it ever gave the settlements back.
Sharon’s star waned when, as defense minister in 1982, he masterminded Israel’s ill-fated invasion of Lebanon, and was forced to resign after a commission of inquiry found him indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinians by Israel’s Christian allies in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut. He had hoped to change the strategic balance in the Middle East by driving Yasser Arafat’s PLO terrorists from Lebanon and forming an alliance with a new Christian-led Lebanese government.
Syrian intervention thwarted his grand design, although some historians attribute the PLO’s later readiness for accommodation with Israel to its expulsion from Lebanon. The war led to worldwide opprobrium and to a controversial 18year long Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which, in turn, fueled the rise of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah militia that opposed it.
Despite the Lebanon fiasco, Sharon continued to serve in Likud-led governments, incurring US wrath for persistent promotion of Jewish settlement activity in occupied territory. In 1998, he became foreign minister, a platform from which he took over as party leader when Benjamin Netanyahu lost the premiership to Labor’s Ehud Barak in May 1999.
In September 2000, as leader of the opposition, Sharon insisted on visiting the holy Temple Mount, despite warnings that the visit might inflame Palestinian passions. The clashes that ensued quickly escalated into what became known as the “Second Palestinian Intifada.” The mounting violence discredited Barak’s peace policies, and, ironically, in February 2001, Sharon was elected prime minister to fight the rising tide of Palestinian terror his visit had helped to spark.
As leader, he seemed to set aside the combative irascibility of old, and revealed a laid back, albeit often biting sense of humor. Rebranded as the grandfather of the nation, the mellow, quiet authority of his later years added to his popularity.
Moreover, as prime minister he was at the very top of the totem pole; there was no one above him to argue with or discredit.
As prime minister, Sharon’s first priority was dealing with Palestinian terror, with suicide bombers taking an increasing toll of Israeli life. After just over a year in office, in late March 2002 he launched “Operation Defensive Shield,” a largescale ground offensive, which significantly reduced the level of terror from the West Bank.
Reelected in January 2003, Sharon began devising a more comprehensive strategy based on separation from the Palestinians. After being strongly against the establishment of a Palestinian state for most of his political life and having built Jewish settlements to prevent it, Sharon dramatically changed course, backing the idea as a panacea for Israel’s long-term survival. However, convinced that there was no peace partner on the Palestinian side, he decided to effect a unilateral separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories. In October, he gave the green light for the erection of a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank to keep the suicide bombers out, and to effect the beginnings of a de facto separation between Israel and West Bank.
TWO MONTHS later, he outlined the general principles of his “disengagement plan.” Israel would withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank, in a move designed to lead to a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, and to guarantee a Jewish majority in Israel. In April 2004, he got the go-ahead from his close ally, US president George W. Bush. The wheel had come full circle. Sharon, the great settlement builder, would become the dismantler of the settlement project.
Not all of it though. He had received from Bush a letter in April 2004 implying that the large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank could remain on the Israeli side of the border in the context of negotiated land swaps with the Palestinians.
As for Gaza, despite strong settler opposition and a mini-rebellion within his own Likud party, Sharon refused to back down. Between August 15 and September 12, 2005, all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank were dismantled, about 9,000 settlers evacuated and the IDF withdrawn from Gaza. Sharon, who for years had been shunned by the international community, now became one of its most respected leaders.
But his position in the Likud deteriorated, as his main rival Netanyahu mounted an overt leadership challenge. In November, in what was dubbed “the big bang in Israeli politics,” Sharon broke away from the Likud to form the more centrist Kadima party, dedicated to a second unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. In yet another career irony, Sharon, the driving force behind the creation of the Likud in 1973, had torn it apart.
The move precipitated new elections set for March 2006. Early polls showed Sharon winning a landslide victory, with around 40 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
But it was not to be. On December 18, Sharon suffered a small stroke and was advised to undergo elective surgery for a minor congenital heart defect. On January 4, a day before his planned operation, he suffered a second stroke, after which he never regained consciousness.
Had he been able to continue as prime minister, Sharon would almost certainly have carried out further unilateral withdrawals. He had already begun planning in meticulous detail further pullbacks in the West Bank in coordination with the US.
Sharon was buried next to his wife Lily at their home on the Sycamore Ranch in the western Negev.