Former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon has passed away at the age of 85. The former prime minister, defense minister, and general had been comatose since Jan. 2006, when he suffered a series of strokes that resulted in his permanent hospitalization. Sharon was among the last surviving members of the generation that founded, and fought for, the State of Israel in 1948. His ideological foe, President Shimon Peres, is another.
For much of his career, Sharon was known as a military and political hard-liner. He was a lieutenant in the 1948 war, which began after Palestinian Arabs and surrounding Arab states attacked the fledgling Jewish state rather than accept the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab countries. Sharon was seriously wounded at the Battle of Latrun–one of the Arab forces’ few victories, thanks to Jordan’s British-trained Arab Legion.
Following the armistice, Sharon led an elite Israeli guerrilla unit that conducted cross-border reprisals and raids to deter Palestinian fedayeen from carrying out terror attacks inside Israel. His aggressive tactics drew criticism from fellow Israeli leaders–and cultivated a fearsome reputation in the Arab world. He continued to cause controversy with his preference for offensive rather than defensive tactics in Israel’s subsequent wars.
Sharon’s vindication, both militarily and politically, came in the Yom Kippur War, when Israeli forces were taken by surprise by Egyptian and Syrian forces attacking on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar across the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights, respectively. Israel’s defensive strategy against Egypt had depended on a string of lightly-guarded forts along the canal, almost all of which fell within hours of the Egyptian assault.
As Israel’s military leadership shuddered, and Prime Minister Golda Meir scrambled to secure U.S. arms, Sharon emerged from retirement to lead troops in the Sinai. He led a daring crossing of the Suez Canal, eventually penetrating behind Egyptian lines, encircling Egypt’s entire Third Army and destroying the Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that had kept the overwhelming power of the Israel Air Force in check.
Soldiers hailed Sharon as a hero, and his performance–amplified by the fact that he had suffered a head wound during the war and kept fighting regradless–boosted his political ambitions within Israel’s conservative Likud Party, which came to power in 1977 after 29 years of dominance by the left-wing Labor Party. Sharon served the government of Menachem Begin, first as Minister of Agriculture and then as Minister of Defense.
It was in the latter capacity that Sharon showed signs of being willing to make difficult sacrifices for peace. After Begin signed the Camp David Accords with Egypt, guaranteeing a return of the Sinai desert (captured in 1967) in exchange for peace and normalization of relations, Sharon took up the task of evacuating the settlement of Yamit, which Israel had established in the Sinai in anticipation of building a deep-water port.
Soon thereafter, Sharon also suffered his greatest political setback. When Palestinian guerrillas made life in the north of Israel difficult through repeated shelling and terror attacks, Israel responded by invading and ousting the Palestinian guerrilla strongholds in southern Lebanon. Yet Sharon, who had initially only sought approval for a limited invasion, soon led Israeli forces all the way to the capital city of Beirut itself.
One of the Christian militias with which Israel had aligned itself then conducted massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, in retaliation for the assassination of the Lebanese president. Israeli forces provided cover for the militia until they finally intervened to stop the killing. A subsequent inquiry by Israel’s Kahan commission found Sharon had failed to prevent the massacres, and he was forced to resign.
Sharon gradually found his way back to the political forefront as a critic of the Oslo peace accords, which were signed in 1993 after secret talks between the Israeli government and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. Under the agreement, Israeli forces withdrew from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza, two territories taken by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Yet Palestinian terror continued–and accelerated.
By 2000, after Prime Minister Ehud Barak had withdrawn the last Israeli soldiers from southern Lebanon and offered Arafat generous concessions in exchange for peace, Sharon emerged as the leader of the opposition. After Arafat rejected Barak’s terms at the Camp David peace conference in July 2000, Palestinians began plans for a renewed intifada–one far more violent than the popular protest that had erupted in late 1987.
Palestinians used Sharon’s controversial visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem–which falls under Israeli sovereignty, but remains a Muslim prayer site, despite its connection to the Jewish faith–as the pretext to launch the second intifada, which included brutal terror attacks and live exchanges between Palestinian police and Israeli forces. A disillusioned Israeli public elected Sharon to lead the government in January 2001.
Over the next several years, Sharon succeeded in defeating Palestinian terror through deft counter-insurgency warfare and the construction of a sophisticated barrier (mostly a fence, though a wall in some sections) along and partly within the West Bank. In the process, he resisted intense international pressure and criticism, including false accusations of a “massacre” in the Palestinian city of Jenin, among other exaggerated claims.
Sharon gradually dismantled much of the government of Palestinian Authority chairman Arafat–physically, as well as politically. Arafat, whom Sharon considered a “murderer,” won the support of U.S. President George W. Bush for a Palestinian state, a gesture Sharon openly compared to the appeasement of Munich. The Bush administration scaled back its Palestinian outreach after Arafat was caught smuggling weapons from Iran.
Aside from that disagreement, Bush and Sharon worked together well, especially as the U.S. confronted new terror threats of its own. After Arafat’s death in 2004, Sharon indicated that he was more willing to work with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected to lead the Palestinian Authority in January 2005. Peace talks continued, often under U.S. pressure, but did not advance significantly towards a final agreement.
It was then that Sharon carried out the most dramatic–and fateful–policy of his political career: the Gaza “disengagement,” a unilateral withdrawal of soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Ironically, Sharon had campaigned for re-election against such a withdrawal, which had been the policy of his Labor Party opponent. Yet Sharon saw an opportunity to relieve the cost of occupation, and boost Israel’s diplomatic position.
After several members of his own party resigned in protest, Sharon formed a new government, and eventually a new party, Kadima (“Forward”) to support the withdrawal. In August 2005, Israeli soldiers evacuated the remaining settlers from Gaza, amidst tearful scenes of civil disobedience. Sharon’s reward was official U.S. recognition of some Israeli territorial claims in the West Bank, and worldwide acclaim for his statesmanship.
In private conversations, Sharon stressed that he had decided on the disengagement policy because he believed it would be best for the long-term security of Israel and the Jewish people. Palestinian terror groups, however, had other ideas, destroying the infrastructure the settlers had left behind and accelerating rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in the towns and communities near the border–including Sharon’s own farm.
In late 2005, on the eve of new Israeli elections, and in the midst of official investigations into a loan Sharon had received during his previous campaign, Sharon suffered a mild stroke. He suffered a far more serious one in January 2006. His most fanatical critics on the Israeli right, who had once seen him as a savior, called his illness divine retribution. His successor, Ehud Olmert, faced two wars from newly-emboldened terror groups.
Sharon, who is survived by two sons and their children, suffered many personal tragedies. His first wife died in a car accident, his second wife died of cancer, and a third son was accidentally shot by a friend. His legacy will remain controversial. He is remembered as a killer, traitor, and hero. At the core, he was a man obsessed with the security of the Jewish people–and he was willing to confront them, if necessary, to achieve it.