I have always had mixed feelings about Ariel Sharon. Never one to fall in with the Israeli tradition of the cult of personality, – think Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin or David Ben-Gurion – I never ignored Sharon’s flaws and adopted him, or anyone else, as the perfect hero. Ariel Sharon was certainly flawed, but also gifted. He may not have been a tsadik (righteous man), far from it, but he was certainly a great man.
Recently, Ariel Sharon fell into the category of famous people who the World was just waiting to die. You know, like in the last years of Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan’s lives. Many people even forgot that Ariel Sharon was still alive and in an induced coma that the doctors had placed him in after he suffered a brain aneurysm in January 2006. After all, eight years is a long time for someone to be in a coma.
This is not intended as an obituary. I will not summarize his life. I will, however, point out some of his achievements as well as some of his failures.
As legend has it, Ariel Sharon was beloved by David Ben-Gurion. In the 1950’s when Sharon was an up and coming elite officer in the IDF and Ben-Gurion was Israel’s prime minister, the latter made it a point to treat young officers as protégés. He had done this before Israel’s independence as well with soldiers who became generals such as, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon. Ben-Gurion reveled in seeing the new Jew, the Sabra, or native born Israeli who the Zionist enterprise had created.
These men who made up the corps of the Israeli military’s leadership from its inception were praised and coddled by the foreign born older immigrant generation of Ben-Gurion. Unfortunately, this led many of them, Sharon included, to have over inflated egos. Sharon made his name as a commander in the 1956 Suez War with Egypt and of many anti-terrorist operations in the 1950s.
As with all history, the facts may be undeniable, but are subject to interpretation. Generals in Israel always seem to get a senior government position such as a cabinet post almost immediately after they retire. This is, in part, due to Israelis’ worship of generals. Depending on whom you ask, Ben-Gurion wanted Sharon to be given a senior position in the Labor Party when Sharon retired from the military. But by the time Sharon was close to retirement Ben-Gurion no longer wielded authority in the Party and Sharon was not much loved or respected by its leadership.
Sharon, instead, looked toward Menachem Begin and his perennial opposition movement, Herut. Sharon also harbored some very anti-socialist political beliefs. But before he could enter politics, Ariel Sharon made his mark on history in the Yom Kippur War.
Ariel Sharon was frustrated in his ambition to rise to the top of the IDF. He reached its second highest rank, that of a full or “two star” general and command of its Southern Command. This was when the Southern border with Egypt was Israel’s most important militarily. Shortly before the Yom Kippur War Sharon retired.
Again, depending on whose version of events you believe, Sharon deserves a great deal of credit for Israel’s final victory in the Sinai in 1973. First, he was said to have pointed out the inefficiencies in the IDF’s defenses along the Suez Canal. But his critique fell on deaf ears. One recommendation that he made, which would have made a major difference in the early Egyptian successes, was to move the Israeli armored further back into the Sinai and away from the canal.
This would have allowed Israel’s front line tanks to take advantage of the Sinai’s strategic depth and be in a position to counter attack early on. Instead most of Israel’s regular army tanks were destroyed in the initial Egyptian attack.
Ariel Sharon’s contribution to Israel’s victory was in his decision to cross the canal. After the start of the war, Sharon assumed command of an army division as a reserve general. He then, depending on who you believe, disobeyed orders not to cross the canal.
Through major fighting and with the help of the Egyptian military’s failure to understand what was happening, Sharon’s army made it into Egypt itself. From the west side of the canal the Israeli Army succeeded in surrounding the Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai. The IDF also threatened the Egyptian capital Cairo.
After the war, Sharon continued to make his mark in politics. He became a cabinet minister when Menachem Begin’s new Likud Party, a party Sharon helped to create, won Israel’s K’nesset elections in 1977. After Begin won re-election as Israel’s prime Minister in 1981, Sharon was appointed Minister of Defense. He then led Israel into possibly its worst mistake in its short history: The 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The invasion was intended to rid Israel of the constant threat of terrorist attack from PLO bases in Southern Lebanon. It was also meant to destroy the PLO’s main base of operations. It did. It was a success that drove the PLO from Lebanon. But Israel soon found itself mired in its own Vietnam.
Just as with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Israeli Military won a swift victory over a weak opposition; although not without many casualties in fighting against not only terrorist groups but the Syrian Army too. It was the extended occupation after the initial invasion — like Iraq– that proved disastrous for Israel.
The Israeli Army was never supposed to go all of the way to Beirut. It did.
It was not supposed to occupy Lebanon. It did.
And, most importantly, Ariel Sharon kept important information from Menachem Begin himself including secret agreements that Sharon had made with the man who was to become the Christian President of Lebanon, Bachir Gemayel. Gemayel also wanted to rid his country of the PLO and the Syrian military which had occupied parts of Lebanon since 1976.
Israel should have begun to withdraw from Lebanon after Yasser Arafat and the main units of the PLO fled Lebanon in August 1982. It did not.
On September 14, 1982, Bachir Gemayel was assassinated in a bombing at his headquarters. Sharon’s ambitions for a peace deal with Lebanon died with him. The PLO, whom Gemayel had opposed, was blamed by his supporters for his death. Sharon should have understood that things had changed and began to withdraw Israel’s forces from Lebanon right then and there. He did not.
All Sharon had to do was to declare victory and begin a withdrawal. He did not.
Then came Sabra and Shatila. I do not believe that Sharon had anything to do with the attack. But it does not matter. On September 16, 1982, Christian Arab Lebanese who blamed the PLO for their leader’s murder took revenge on Palestinian Muslim Arab civilians who lived in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Accounts vary depending on how much the source wishes to defame Israel, but certainly at least hundreds of innocent people were murdered. Israel and Ariel Sharon were blamed by the World and many Israelis.
It does not matter whether or not Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Government, or any of the IDF soldiers who controlled the territory leading to the refugee camps were involved. The IDF could have stopped the Christian militia from getting to Sabra and Shatila. It does not matter if they could have known what was to happen. Israel, as the occupier, was responsible for keeping the peace in the area.
The world called Sharon a butcher and a mass murderer. Rightly or wrongly, he became the rallying point for all international propaganda campaigns against Israel. The Israeli public began to vilify him and public opinion turned against the war in Lebanon.
Menachem begin, however, stood by his Minister of defense. Whether he did so out of loyalty or because to fire Sharon would have meant giving in to external pressures we do not know. But when, in Febuary 1983, the special Kahan Commission which investigated Sabra and Shatila found Sharon guilty of at least being “responsible” for what happened if not culpable, he was forced to resign as Defense Minister. Ariel Sharon continued to serve, however, as a cabinet minister in one form or another in successive Likud governments.
Maybe Israel did not withdraw from Lebanon after Sabra and Shatila to save face? A withdrawal then would seem like it was retreating in disgrace. Maybe Israel stayed only after bombings killed hundreds of Israeli soldiers and civilians in Tyre and Sidon to save face? To withdraw after that would seem like the terrorists had forced them out.
It does not matter. For almost twenty years Israeli soldiers would give their lives in Lebanon because they believed that they were defending Israel’s northern border. But just as terrorists were in Iraq after 2003 only because the American Military was there and provided an easy target to be attacked, so too did the IDF in Southern Lebanon provide a target for terrorists who only attacked them because they were there in the first place. Roadside bombs menaced the IDF in Southern Lebanon in the exact same way that they later menaced the US military in Iraq. The IDF went from defending Israel’s northern border to defending itself.
Like with so many other Israeli politicians, Sharon refused to go away after he had fallen from grace. David Ben-Gurion formed a new party and tried to win back the premiership after his own Labor Party did not want him anymore. Shimon Peres served almost perennially as Israel’s leader of the opposition in spite of successive defeats. Yitzhak Rabin continued to serve as a leader in the Labor Party for fifteen years after he was forced to resign as Premier before winning election again. Most recently, in 2009 Benyamin Netanyahu won election again as prime minister ten years after suffering a humiliating defeat in his first bid for re-election.
Sharon’s journey to the top, however, was somewhat an accident of history. When Benyamin Netanyahu lost the elections in 1999, the Likud Party was left with a meager 19 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. Ehud Barak, the new prime minister, had won a huge victory and was expected to serve for a long time to come. The Likud leadership was left to lick its wounds and search for someone to serve only as what would probably be an interregnum leader.
Ariel Sharon was the senior Likud member of the Knesset at the time. He was the obvious choice of the Party’s leadership who elected him acting chairman. Later that year he was officially elected Chairman of the Likud Party in a full vote of the Party’s membership. He defeated two lesser candidates, including the then Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert, who only ran to establish themselves as leaders within the Party.
I remember hoping at the time that this would be Sharon’s swan song. He would lead the Likud Party only until the next generation could step up. I was sorry that he was even appointed a cabinet minister by Netanyahu. While respecting Sharon for his military service, I felt that his conduct in the Lebanon War proved that he was not fit to lead the country.
Events soon overtook themselves. First, Ehud Barak was forced to form an unstable coalition government of many parties. His own Labor Party only held twenty three seats in the Knesset. He proceeded to alienate many by reneging on campaign promises such as drafting all of the Ultra-Orthodox who benefit from yeshiva deferments.
Then Barak shocked most Israelis, including many of his own supporters, when he was perceived to have offered too much to Yasser Arafat in the way of concessions at a Camp David Summit in July 2000. These concessions included disbanding Labor affiliated moshavim in the Jordan River Valley. Arafat’s rejection of the peace offer made Barak seem weak.
Then came the famous visit that Ariel Sharon made to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on September 28, 2000. This supposedly outraged the Arabs so much that they had no choice but to riot and lynch three Israeli reservists at a police station in Ramallah after they had accidentally strayed into the area of the Palestinian Authority while traveling in a civilian car. They should have been turned back by the PA Militia, not arrested.
Israelis may sometimes be naïve in their desire to believe in the other side’s sincerity regarding wanting peace; Naïve, but not stupid. No one believed that Ariel Sharon was to blame for the violence that ensued. Long before the admissions that were made by Arafat’s people that the so called Second Intifada was planned the minute that Arafat walked away from the Camp David conference, Israelis knew and understood that they were under attack by people who had never really renounced terrorism and who would use it any time that they did not get everything that they wanted. This contrasted with the Israeli Public’s reaction to similar violence on the part of the Palestinians in response to actions taken by Benyamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister.
Ehud Barak’s inability to deal with the new reality led to a widespread lack of confidence in his leadership. Israelis no longer believed that the terrorism since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 was caused solely by Hamas and other groups who opposed peace. They now realized that Arafat was still their enemy.
In a political miscalculation, Ehud Barak decided to call for a special by-election only for the premiership rather than a full general election for the Knesset. This was made possible by a proviso in the law which called for special elections should the prime minister resign and the Knesset not elect a new one. Fortunately that clause died with the direct election of the premiere here.
After only twenty months in office, Ehud Barak lost in a humiliating landslide to Ariel Sharon by 25 percentage points. The Arab Community had simply stayed home on Election Day and the vast majority of the rest of the population had had enough of placating Yasser Arafat. Even if Israel’s Arabs had voted Sharon would still have won by a considerable margin.
Less than two years earlier the media seemed to rejoice in Ehud barak’s victory over Netanyahu. People celebrated in Tel Aviv in ways reminiscent of the celebrations in East Europe when the Berlin Wall came down. Now many of the same people welcomed the leadership of Ariel Sharon.
Sharon’s ascension to the Premiership was likened to Winston Churchill’s selection as England’s prime minister in 1940; Sharon was the right man in the right place at the right time. Sharon might still have been reviled by many for the Lebanon War, but things had changed. Israelis turned to the strong man to protect them. Ehud Barak, in spite of having been a general and the IDF Chief of Staff, had failed them.
Sharon wasted no time striking back. He sent the army in to occupy the Arab village of Beit Jala just south of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. He did so, even though it was under direct PA authority, because snipers used the village to shoot randomly at Israeli civilians in Gilo. Sharon also sent the army into the northern most and unoccupied part of the Gaza Strip. He did this in response to terrorists using the area as a base to fire mortars randomly at Israeli communities outside of Gaza.
Unfortunately, the American Secretary of State at the time, Collin Powell, objected and demanded that Sharon withdraw Israeli forces from those areas. Sharon complied.
Then came 9/11.
Once America found itself in a war on terrorism and after having felt first hand the pain of a direct terrorist attack on civilians its government no longer expected Israel to restrain itself. In April of 2002 whole families were murdered while celebrating the Passover Seder at a hotel in Netanya by terrorists who bombed the hotel. Sharon and Israel had had enough.
Ariel Sharon called up reserve forces and enacted Operation Defensive Shield. For the first time since Oslo, Israeli forces went back into the Arab cities of the West Bank and attacked the terrorists directly at their bases. The IDF went into Ramallah and forced Yasser Arafat to take refuge in his government compound. All contacts with Arafat were severed and Yasser Arafat was not allowed to even leave the compound until shortly before his death when he was permitted to go to France for medical treatment.
Even overt lies about massacres that never happened in Jenin went nowhere and did not affect the Israeli public’s resolve. In the elections of 2003, the first without a direct election of the prime minister since 1992, Ariel Sharon led the Likud to its largest victory in twenty two years.
Ariel Sharon decided to combat terrorism by building a new fence along the West Bank. Since the Six Day War there had not been any physical barrier between the West Bank and the rest of Israel. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority the cities it controlled became centers for the planning of terror against Israel.
In the year after the 2003 elections suicide bombings seemed to become a regular occurrence on buses throughout Israel. The army could not guard the whole border with the Palestinian Areas. The Separation Barrier as it was called succeeded in preventing terrorists from crossing into Israeli cities. Terrorism plummeted.
The new fence did not follow the exact original pre-1967 border. Instead it left large swaths of territory captured in 1967 on Israel’s side. Israelis on both sides of the political spectrum opposed the new fence. People on the left called it a land grab. People on the right felt that it would mean that Israel intended to give up all of the settlements east of the fence.
Ariel Sharon then shocked Israel and the World by planning a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including the dismantling of all of the Israeli settlements there. This was such a surprise because his opponent in the 2003 election, the leader of the Labor Party Amram Mitzna, called for the exact same thing and Sharon dismissed it as unthinkable. Sharon was also, as a cabinet minister in the past, the one who had called on Israelis to settle in Gaza and arranged for the establishment and growth of those settlements.
Sharon made the unprecedented move of firing two cabinet ministers from a coalition party Yirael Beitenu in order to win the vote in his cabinet. Sharon thereby won the vote by one vote instead of losing it by one.
Ariel Sharon allowed for the full membership of the Likud Party to vote on whether or not to go forward with what became known as the disengagement from Gaza. He lost the vote badly and so he of course ignored the results.
When the disengagement came up for a vote in the Knesset he threatened the Likud ministers who had voted against it in the cabinet with being fired should they vote against it in the Knesset. All but one of them, including Benyamin Netanyahu, fell into line and voted for it.
When it became clear that he had lost the support of the Likud Party’s Central Committee and would not be re-elected the Party’s Chairman before the next elections, Sharon left the party he helped to find and formed a new one.
I had mixed feelings about the disengagement. I was not entirely opposed to a withdrawal from Gaza. At the time I remembered what happened after Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. Surely such a serious change to our borders and our very existence should be put to a general vote? Shouldn’t it? Especially in this case, since Sharon had promised not to do it in the previous elections.
There was also no effort to “sell” the plan to the Israeli public. Just as Rabin and Peres had done with Oslo, Ariel Sharon presented the Disengagement as a done deal and if you did not like it then tough. His hubris was offensive.
Also, why do it unilaterally? The Hezbollah was emboldened when we left Lebanon unilaterally in 2000. Wouldn’t the Hamas similarly take credit for our “retreating?” They did. Sharon could and should have found a way to make it seem as if the disengagement came after negotiations with the PA. Then not only would he be able to claim that it came after the other side had made concessions too, but would also have been able to give credit to the PA’s leader Abu-Mazen.
The real question is, what made Sharon make such a drastic reversal on the issue of the Gaza Strip? Was he an old man looking for his place in history? Did he want to be remembered like De-Gaulle who gave Algeria its independence or Yitzhak Rabin who signed the Oslo Accords?
Some people claim that Sharon just wanted to divert attention away from a political scandal. Ariel Sharon was under investigation for violating Israel’s campaign finance laws and other financial misdeeds. The investigations were mooted when Sharon suffered his second aneurysm and went into an induced coma.
The Kadima Party was founded by Ariel Sharon after he left the Likud. It was expected to win more than forty seats (more than a third of the total) in the 2006 Knesset elections. But after Sharon’s coma, the new party was led by Sharon’s number two man and successor as prime minister Ehud Olmert. The Party won the elections, but only gained twenty nine seats. It lost to the Likud Party in the elections of 2009 and in 20013 it fell to only two seats in the Knesset and irrelevancy. Kadima probably would never have been Sharon’s legacy to Israel anyway; although, it is the only third party as it were to win the Knesset elections in Israel.
So what will be Sharon’s legacy? Sorry to disappoint, but I must say that it is too soon to tell. I am of the opinion that it is silly when the media talks of legacies every time an American President leaves office or dies. We need a descent amount of time to pass before historians can accurately asses the accomplishments and failures of historical figures. I cannot say if that is at least twenty years or even fifty years. As for Sharon’s legacy, for lack of a better cliché, only time will tell.