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His own explanation for his turnabout was simple: Reality looked different from the prime minister’s chair with all its complications and conflicting responsibilities. “What you see from here, you can’t see from out there,” he famously told visitors.
Complicating events were a series of police investigations targeting Sharon on suspicions of influence-peddling, real estate fraud and campaign finance violations, mostly originating before he became prime minister. The police eventually decided not to indict him, prompting accusations of an ideologically driven whitewash, but his son Omri pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison.
Despite the uproar, the disengagement was carried in August 2005 with little incident. In a two-week operation, tens of thousands of troops removed 9,000 settlers from 21 settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank.
Protests continued, however. In November, as his party and his coalition approached meltdown, Sharon quit to form a new party, Kadima, which immediately became the ruling party in a new center-left coalition. Virtually overnight, he was remade from champion of the hardline right to leader of a new center-left consensus. Two months later, and one day after Omri resigned from the Knesset in disgrace, Sharon’s career ended in a massive stroke.
During his long years lingering in a coma, Sharon’s hold on Israel’s memory was as tenuous as his hold on life. The right, whose champion he had been for a generation, never forgave him for the 2005 Gaza disengagement, and the left, whose cause he took up in his final years, never forgave him for the 1982 Beirut massacre.
The Kadima party that he founded in 2005 to carry his new vision barely survived him, winning elections in 2006 under Ehud Olmert and 2009 under Tzipi Livni but then virtually disappearing in 2013 under Shaul Mofaz. The unilateral Gaza withdrawal, his last strategic gambit, remained mired in controversy, favored by the military but reviled as a failure by much of the population. Only the settlements, the lifelong passion that his aides said he came in the end to see as a historic error, seemed likely to endure.
In the long run, however, the hugely complex emotions he evoked in Israel and around the world, the indelible stamp he left on every stage of Israel’s growth, his military achievements and his immensely human personality seem certain to guarantee him a permanent place in Israeli history.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org