by Thomas G. Mitchell and Ralph SeligerAFTER ALMOST EXACTLY EIGHT YEARS IN A COMA, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finally succumbed on January 11th. Known for bold, even reckless moves both as a career military officer and as a politician, he was reviled by the left as a hawk and worse for most of his life, and ended up seen as a traitor by the extreme right, while others considered him a moderate and potential peacemaker. Over decades, Sharon championed Israel’s extensive settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (viewed by most of the world as illegal and counterproductive to peace) — but then he stunned the world by unilaterally evacuating settlers and soldiers from Gaza and part of the West Bank in August 2005.
Sharon was born Ariel Scheinerman on February 27, 1928 in the cooperative farming village of Kfar Malal in the coastal plain of Palestine known as the Sharon, from which he would later take his name. He is said to have inherited a life-long distrust of Arabs from his father during their rough-hewn frontier existence. He joined the mainstream Hagana militia as a teenager in 1945 and fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 as a platoon leader. Severely wounded during the battle of Latrun in May 1948, he barely made it off the battlefield.
In 1953, he was chosen to lead Unit 101, commandos tasked with responding to Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. In October of that year, he led a reprisal raid on the West Bank Jordanian village of Kibya — following the slaying of a mother and her two children — in which sixty-nine Palestinian civilians died when their homes were dynamited. Sharon claimed that they hid in cellars and ignored warnings to evacuate.
Three years later, Sharon opened Israel’s Sinai Campaign by charging his brigade into the Mitla Pass, but was accused of exceeding his orders with an overly aggressive advance that resulted in massive casualties for his unit. In June 1967, he led an armored division back into the Sinai Peninsula in Israel’s victorious Six Day War, making him a national hero. And in the early 1970s, as head of Israel’s Southern Command, he suppressed guerrilla activity with ruthless efficiency in the citrus orchards of the Gaza Strip.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, having entered politics for the first time, Sharon engineered the creation of the Likud out of four smaller parties of the nationalist and economic right. When war broke out on October 6, 1973, Sharon returned to the Sinai front as a reserve general. He maneuvered his armored division across the Suez Canal, to cut off Egyptian forces and threaten Cairo. This reinforced his status as a national hero.
Elected to the Knesset on December 31, 1974, he quit less than a year later in a futile bid to pursue his dream of becoming chief of staff through a reserve command. During Yitzhak Rabin’s first term as prime minister in the mid-1970s, Sharon served as his personal anti-terrorism advisor for eight months. Barely elected to the Knesset on his own list in 1977, he served Menachem Begin as minister of agriculture and spent the next four years working closely with the National Religious Party to settle the West Bank. The NRP settled the West Bank for religious reasons; Sharon settled it to (in his view) ensure Israel’s security against Arab threats from the east. Sharon chose the sites for settlements and coordinated with other ministries to support them with infrastructure. Not atypically, Sharon also gave Begin the support he needed to give up settlements in the Sinai as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
BEGIN APPOINTED SHARON AS HIS DEFENSE MINISTER after being reelected in the summer of 1981. Sharon immediately began planning for an invasion of Lebanon to be carried out as soon as he had an excuse. He wanted to expel the Syrians from Lebanon, destroy Palestinian bases in southern Lebanon — known as Fatahland for the staging areas for occasional attacks on Israel — and leave pro-Israel Christian allies in charge of the country. His excuse came in June 1982 when a renegade Fatah splinter group attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London. Sharon won cabinet support for a limited invasion of southern Lebanon, but exceeded this mandate to drive into Beirut.
In September 1982, Christian militiamen carried out a massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut after being allowed into the camps by Sharon. An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon “indirectly responsible” and forced his resignation as defense minister in February 1983. For the next fifteen years, Sharon was relegated to minor ministerial posts in Likud governments.
Sharon’s comeback began in October 1998 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him as foreign minister. Following Netanyahu’s electoral defeat by Ehud Barak in 1999, Sharon was elected the new leader of Likud.
On September 28, 2000, Sharon was unwisely permitted by Prime Minister Barak to tour the religiously sensitive area known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, escorted by hundreds of security personnel. This prompted Palestinian rock-throwers who were soon met by lethal force from Israeli police — and so began the Second or “Al-Aksa Intifada,” named after one of the two mosques on the Temple Mount.
IN FEBRUARY 2001, SHARON DECISIVELY BEAT BARAK, by a greater margin than Barak had defeated Netanyahu two years earlier in the greatest electoral victory in Israeli history. Sharon then spent the next years suppressing the Intifada, most critically by reinvading the West Bank, following the March 27, 2002 bombing of a Passover seder at a hotel in Netanya, which killed thirty Israelis and wounded 140. He also approved construction of Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank, known to its detractors as “the Wall” or “Apartheid Wall,” after initially resisting the idea. Instead of the purely defensive measure along the Green Line as envisioned by Israeli leftwingers who had proposed it, Sharon made the barrier into an instrument for further confiscations of Palestinian property and the division of its population, as it wended its way snake-like around the most thickly-populated settlement blocs.
In February 2003, Sharon led the Likud to a decisive general election victory, but after failing to win a majority of Likud support in an internal referendum, he relied on backing from the Labor Party, Meretz, and others to carry out the Gaza “disengagement” in August 2005. Sharon began to consciously borrow the language of the left, referring to Israeli rule in the West Bank as an occupation over another people. He then broke with his party and took thirteen members of the Knesset with him into his new Kadima (“Forward”) party in November 2005, claiming the center of the political spectrum by recruiting prominent Laborites, including Shimon Peres.
Sharon suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on January 3, 2006. Later that month, Hamas won legislative elections for the Palestinian Authority.
SHARON’S MOST DEVOTED FOLLOWERS FELT BETRAYED by his forced evacuation of 8,000 settlers in Gaza, yet he refused to negotiate or even coordinate this withdrawal with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas. This handed Hamas a political victory by seeming to substantiate their claim that only “armed struggle,” rather than negotiations, could liberate Palestinian territory. Unlike his predecessors Rabin and Barak, Sharon never made the tough decision to attempt to trade strategic real estate for a negotiated peace.
He was a brilliant military tactician but a very flawed strategist, and a political maverick rather than a died-in-the-wool ideologue. That’s why he could change course at the end of his active life, famously explaining that “Things look different here [from his perch as prime minister] than there.” But his ruthless maneuverings — with no regard for the rules he broke, the authorities he disobeyed, or the people he ran over in pursuit of his goals (fully earning his appellation as “the bulldozer”) — did much to poison relations between Jews and Arabs over the decades, and a few months of a new direction, not even fully defined when he fell to his strokes, could hardly begin to repair this damage.
Finally, Sharon was probably the last Israeli politician with the gravitas to be able to enact a major reform of Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system (an extreme version of proportional representation that proliferates multiple parties in the Knesset and thereby overly empowers minorities), which has complicated peacemaking with the Palestinians at times. There is no sign, however, that he even contemplated such a move.
Still, it’s interesting to note that the true inheritors of his legacy are not Israel’s extreme right, some of whom actually believe that he was struck down as Divine retribution for his forceful actions against the Gaza settlements (much as they see the hand of God in the murder of Yitzhak Rabin for his turn toward peacemaking). His inheritors, rather, were his direct successors as leaders of Kadima (now nearly defunct as a party), Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, former Likud stalwarts who pursued a negotiated two-state solution, even as they also allowed themselves to be lured into bloody military confrontations with Arab hardliners in Lebanon and Gaza. A badly flawed legacy has produced an imperfect progeny, but far from the worst in Israel’s political spectrum today.
Thomas G. Mitchell, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and blogger on a number of subjects, including Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. He blogs at the Self-Hating Gentile.
Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. The final editor of Israel Horizons, discontinued in 2011 as the print publication of Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel), he currently serves as an administrator of the Partners’ weblog.