Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, the larger-than-life soldier and politician whose stormy, six-decade career helped to define the image and character of the Jewish state, has died at 85. He had been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke on January 4, 2006, while serving as prime minister.
A charismatic leader and a brilliant if headstrong tactician, Sharon spent his entire adult life in the Israeli public arena, beginning as a 20-year-old platoon commander in Israel’s 1948 war of independence. He played a central role in many of his country’s most critical episodes, winning acclaim and notoriety for his daring and brutal effectiveness. Renowned as a leading opponent of Israeli-Palestinian compromise, he ended his career with a dramatic reversal and directed the first Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory, transforming himself in the world’s eye from obstructionist to statesman.
At nearly every stage in his career, his actions drew accusations of recklessness, insubordination and disregard for human life, each time sidelining him, it seemed, for good. Each time, though, he bounced back stronger than ever. His endless ability to overcome obstacles, whether military, political or personal, won him the nickname “the Bulldozer.”
Sharon was born in February 1928 in Kfar Malal, a moshav or cooperative farming village north of Tel Aviv. His parents, Samuil and Vera Scheinerman, were Zionist activists from Byelorussia who fled the Soviet Union in 1922. In Israel they joined Mapai, the dominant labor party, but regularly feuded with neighbors and ended up ostracized in their own village, expelled from the party-run marketing coop and health clinic.
Young Ariel, while inheriting his parents’ stubborn independence, received a traditional labor upbringing: He joined a pioneer youth movement at 10 and enlisted at 14 in the Mapai-run Haganah underground militia, proceeding from there into the regular army.
Sharon first won notoriety in 1953, as commander of the Israeli army’s first special anti-terrorism detail, Unit 101. He led a series of retaliatory raids into the Jordanian-ruled West Bank that left dozens of civilians dead and drew massive international criticism. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, pressured to disband the unit, folded it into a paratroop brigade, which he then placed under Sharon’s command.
During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Sharon led an attack on Egyptian troops in the Mitla Pass, violating direct orders, and lost 38 of his own men. His military career went into a long slump until 1964, when his friend and mentor Yitzhak Rabin became chief of staff and named Sharon to a series of senior command posts.
In 1969 Sharon was named chief of the Southern Command, a stepping stone to chief of staff. Faced with growing terrorism from Gaza, he initiated a draconian crackdown, bulldozing hundreds of homes in a crowded refugee camp to clear passages for Israeli armor. Once again he drew worldwide protest, cementing an international reputation as a symbol of supposed Israeli brutality.
In 1972, passed over for chief of staff, Sharon quit the army to enter politics, but returned a year later to command a reserve armored division in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This time he outdid himself: At the war’s height he led his tanks across the Suez Canal and proceeded to encircle Egypt’s vaunted Third Army, violating orders but arguably securing an Israeli victory. When the war ended with massive Israeli losses, the country’s military and political leaders were disgraced and Sharon was a national hero.
His personal life was as turbulent as his professional life. His first wife, Margalit, had been killed in an automobile accident in 1962, after nine years of marriage. He married her sister Lily a year later, and they had two sons. Another son from his first marriage, 11-year-old Gur, was killed 1967 while playing with a gun.
In 1972 he moved his family to a huge ranch in the Negev desert near Gaza, the Sycamore Farm, controversially purchased with the help of wealthy American admirers. Lily died of cancer in 2000. Sharon’s surviving sons stayed at the ranch and remained his closest confidantes until the end.
His political career was no less unconventional. He had shocked his labor movement friends in 1972 by joining the Likud, an alliance of right-wing opposition parties that he had helped to forge. He was elected to the Knesset in December 1973 as a Likud member, but quit in 1975 and went to work as a senior adviser to Rabin, who headed a left-wing Labor government.
A year later Sharon left again to seek a leadership position, first with Likud, then with Labor. Rejected by both, he formed his own political party, Shlomtzion. He hoped to create a post-ideological movement of young rebels, wooing such firebrands as Yossi Sarid of Labor and settler leader Hanan Porat, but ended up alone with a few cronies. Squeaking through the 1977 Knesset elections, he led his tiny faction into the newly triumphant Likud and became a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Four years later, in 1981, Begin named him minister of defense, traditionally the nation’s second-ranking post.
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.
Then, in 1999, Sharon began his most spectacular comeback yet. Netanyahu, defeated at the polls by Labor’s Ehud Barak, announced his resignation from politics. Sharon was chosen as Likud leader, presumably as a caretaker. Just 15 months later, however, Barak’s government collapsed and Sharon was swept into the prime minister’s office in a special midterm election.
Sharon’s election was greeted with horror in much of the world media, but Israelis, into the fifth month of a violent Palestinian uprising, were largely relieved to have the old soldier in charge. Most important, the incoming Bush administration in Washington embraced Sharon as a friend, guaranteeing him international legitimacy.
Sharon quickly escalated Israel’s response to the Palestinian violence, dispatching the air force to bomb urban targets, ordering the assassination of suspected terrorist leaders and imprisoning Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. In May 2003, after nearly three years of urban warfare, Arafat agreed to hand over part of his powers to a relatively moderate prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. In reply, the United States, together with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, issued a so-called Road Map for Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood. Sharon accepted the plan, becoming the first Israeli leader openly to endorse Palestinian statehood.
Friends and enemies greeted Sharon’s embrace of Palestinian aspirations, after a lifetime of implacable hostility, with surprise and suspicion. In December 2003 he dropped an even bigger bombshell, announcing a plan for what he called “unilateral disengagement” from the Palestinians. If terrorism wasn’t halted, he said, Israel would move away from the Palestinians by withdrawing its troops from heavily populated areas and walling them off behind a security barrier. Most shockingly, the plan called for dismantling Jewish settlements, the project he had nurtured and championed for three decades.
The plan turned Sharon’s image on its head. His detractors on the left, accustomed to calling him a butcher, now embraced him as a peacemaker. Settlers and their backers on the right, his closest allies, attacked him as a deadly enemy and mounted furious protests. One group of rabbis staged an arcane ritual calling on heaven to strike him dead. Journalists predicted civil war. His Likud party was thrown into an uproar, and smaller parties began abandoning his coalition.
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
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).