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In June 1982, barely a year in the defense post, Sharon began the misadventure that would cloud his reputation for decades, the Lebanon War. Responding to a terrorist shooting of Israel’s ambassador in London, Begin ordered the army to enter Lebanon and attack bases of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Sharon, acting on his own according to most historians, drove far beyond the original targets and surrounded Beirut, the Lebanese capital. His stated goal was to drive the PLO out of Lebanon.
The massively destructive war became a diplomatic and moral nightmare for Israel – especially after a pro-Israel Lebanese militia entered a Palestinian refugee camp in September and massacred some 800 civilians. Israel, as the controlling force in the area, was widely accused of a war crime. A worldwide outcry ensued. Israelis at home mounted the country’s largest-ever protest demonstration. In Jerusalem, a state judicial commission of inquiry ruled the following spring that the army was indirectly responsible for the massacre. The judges said Sharon held “personal responsibility” and should resign or be fired.
Forced out of the defense ministry, Sharon spent the next decade working to rebuild his credibility. In 1984 he sued Time magazine for libel in a New York court, charging that the magazine had defamed him in a February 1983 article that claimed he had approved the massacre in advance. The court ruled the magazine’s claim to be false, but did not award Sharon damages because he had not proved there had been reckless disregard for the truth, as required for a libel judgment.
The ambiguous verdict did not change minds among Sharon’s critics, but it restored his political credibility within the Likud. Over the next decade he held a series of mid-level Cabinet posts, championed settlement building and became a leading in-house critic of party leader Yitzhak Shamir, Begin’s successor.
Sharon’s outcast image and fiery, hawkish rhetoric made him a favorite with the Likud’s working-class, mostly Sephardic voter base. Crowds regularly greeted him by his nickname with chants of “Arik, melech Yisrael” (Arik, king of Israel). Internationally, however, he was a pariah, shunned diplomatically and tarred as the “butcher of Beirut.” The Reagan and first Bush administrations, striving to broker Israeli-Palestinian compromise, treated him as personna non grata.
When Shamir retired, after losing the 1992 elections to Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party, Sharon vied for Likud party leadership but was edged out by the much younger Benjamin Netanyahu. Throughout the 1990s Sharon remained an incendiary orator, able to stir crowds and powerful enough to demand the foreign ministry when Netanyahu became prime minister.
Politically, however, he was a spent force.