January 6, 2006.
Irrespective of his prospects for recovery, Ariel Sharon has clearly ended his
term as Israel’s prime minister and as the leader of the nascent Kadima Party,
which was expected to win a landslide victory in the coming national elections.
His passing from public life represents not only the fall of the
pre-eminent figure in Israeli politics but, more fundamentally, the conclusion the
formative era in Israel’s history – a period Mr. Sharon personified.
Mr. Sharon has been intimately identified with every major event in that history.
An infantry officer in the desperate battle for the Jerusalem corridor in the 1948
War of Independence, leader of the paratroopers in the 1956 Sinai campaign,
he rose to the rank of general and commanded divisions in the Six Day War of
1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
As a government minister, he was the architect of the Israeli invasion of
Lebanon in 1982, and the primary force behind the settlement movement.
With the sole exception of Shimon Peres, he has been a member of the Knesset
longer than any other Israeli, and he remains unsurpassed in his ability to forge
and maintain coalitions. He began his political career on the left, swung keenly
right, and concluded in the center.
Mr. Sharon, more than any single Israeli, represented the finest ideals of
the Jewish state – its heroism, resilience and versatility – as well as many of its
most controversial policies.
And, like Israel, Mr. Sharon was a ganglion of contradictions. The party he
formed in 1977, Shlomzion, advocated negotiations with the Palestine
Liberation Organization and the creation of a Palestinian state in territories
captured by Israel in 1967.
Joining the Likud, however, then under the leadership of Menachem Begin, Mr.
Sharon became an unremitting foe of the Palestinian organization and its leader,
Yasser Arafat. A Palestinian state already existed, Mr. Sharon claimed, situated
in a large part of what was formerly British Mandated Palestine and comprised
of a large Palestinian majority–Jordan–and there was no need to establish
In the mid-1970s, he staunchly opposed the peace overtures of Egyptian
President Anwar Sadat, and promoted the construction of Israeli settlements in
the occupied Sinai Peninsula. But the same Sharon also uprooted settlements
and withdrew Israeli troops from Sinai in 1982 to fulfill the terms of Israel’s
peace agreement with Egypt.
Several Israeli leaders, Begin included, feared that Mr. Sharon posed a threat to
the country’s democracy. Nevertheless, when a state investigation found him
morally culpable for the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian militiamen
in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon
promptly complied with the court’s finding and resigned.
No issue more starkly demonstrated the twists in Mr. Sharon’s policies than the
so-called Oslo peace accords Israel signed with Yasser Arafat in 1993. Whether
as a leader of the rightwing opposition or as a minister in the Likud-led
government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Sharon consistently warned that
Arafat would never abandon terrorism, and that the Oslo process was leading
Israel toward disaster.
His predictions were borne out in 2000, when Arafat’s al-Fatah faction joined
with Islamic terrorist groups in launching a war of suicide bombers and roadside
ambushes that devastated Israel’s economy and nearly shattered its society.
Elected in February 2001, Mr. Sharon refused to meet with Arafat, and
eventually mounted a counteroffensive that destroyed the terrorists’
infrastructure and left Arafat isolated and besieged in his West Bank
But then Mr. Sharon again pulled a volte-face and began stressing the
need to make “painful sacrifices” for peace, and became the first Israeli prime
minister to publicly endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.
But what appeared to be inconsistencies in Mr. Sharon’s positions was often
merely a reflection of his ability to sense out the preferences of the Israeli
When it became clear that the majority of Israelis would no longer fight
to defend 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza and were no longer willing to occupy
the strip, he evacuated settlements and left the Gaza Palestinians to shoot at
When Israelis overwhelmingly supported the construction of a West Bank
fence, Mr. Sharon, who originally opposed the barrier, began to build it.
When most Israelis despaired of the status quo with the Palestinians but
gave up on the possibility of finding a Palestinian leadership able to negotiate
Israel’s borders, Mr. Sharon broke away from the status quo Likud and founded
Kadima, a party capable of redrawing Israel’s borders unilaterally.
Israel’s image in the world has changed radically since its founding, and so too
have international perceptions of Ariel Sharon. Revered after its struggle for
independence in 1948, Israel was then reviled for its part in the Anglo-French
invasion of Egypt in 1956. Respected after its lightening military victory in
1967, and for its stubborn resistance to the Syria-Egypt assault of 1973, Israel
again became a target for international censure because of its occupation of the
West Bank and Gaza and its settlement policy.
That opprobrium intensified in the years after 2000, when much of the world –
the Europeans, in particular – blamed Israel for provoking Palestinian terror and
for employing brutal tactics to counter it. The international image of Mr. Sharon
– at first perceived as a stalwart warrior but later as a trenchant enemy of peace
– has closely mirrored these vicissitudes.
The early stage of his premiership was marked by demonstrations
throughout Western Europe comparing Mr. Sharon to Hitler and accusing him of
war crimes. In the wake of the Gaza withdrawal, though, the international
community began to view Israel in a more positive light. The once universally
maligned Mr. Sharon was feted at the U.N. and lauded by many of his former
European critics as a peacemaker and a statesman.
Mr. Sharon’s relations with the United States, especially, have followed a
pattern established by previous Israeli prime ministers. Willing to irk or even
antagonize American leaders on matters relating to Israeli security and its
territorial claims, Mr. Sharon, like his predecessors, has labored to maintain
close rapport with the U.S. In spite of occasionally spiking tensions arising from
Israel’s conduct of the war on terror and the course of the separation fence,
Mr. Sharon has succeeded in establishing remarkably robust ties with the Bush
administration, and strengthening the historical affinity between Israel and the
The blond and handsome commando and severely overweight politico, the
“bulldozer” who pushed thousands of Israelis in and out of settlements, the
lover of Hebrew culture whose first language was Russian, the secularist who
revered Jewish faith, the fighter of many wars and the champion, ultimately, of
peace – Ariel Sharon has had multiple identities. And yet he has always been
thoroughly Israeli, the embodiment of the state’s protean and paradoxical
Now, with his withdrawal from the political scene, Israel stands to enter a new
phase in its national existence.
Less divided, perhaps, and more certain of the borders it wants and the
type of society it aspires to create; separated from the Palestinians but open to
compromise with them; preserving productive relations with the international
community and an unshakeable alliance with the United States.
That is the Israel that Ariel Sharon has left us, a formidable legacy for
facing the future.