Leader who epitomized country’s warrior past
Special to The Washington Post (*)
Ariel Sharon, who died yesterday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state after a massive stroke, was a monumental figure in Israel’s modern history who epitomized the country’s warrior past even as he sought to become the architect of a peaceful future.
As a soldier, Defence minister and prime minister, Sharon fought or commanded forces in every one of Israel’s military conflicts for more than half a century, beginning with its 1948 independence war, and was author of the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a politician, he built the infrastructure of the country’s controversial settlement campaign in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, then stunned friend and foe alike by dismantling part of the project he had long championed.
Through it all, Sharon commanded centre stage, insisting at times that he alone knew what was best for the state of Israel and persevering over six decades to finally emerge as prime minister in 2001, after countless humiliations that would have long killed off the careers of less determined men.
The man who chose the title “Warrior” for his autobiography was for much of his career the darling of the Israeli right, which chanted “Arik, King of Israel!” invoking his nickname and comparing him to the legendary biblical King David.
For decades, he used that support to undermine governments of both the rival Labour and his own Likud parties and advance his personal political agenda. But in later years, as he first organized Israel’s withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and made plans for pullbacks from parts of the West Bank, the right denounced him as a traitor.
The more dovish left, which had long feared and despised him, had begun to reevaluate his motives and policies and accord him a grudging respect. Meanwhile, for moderates on both sides of Israel’s bitter political divide, wary and exhausted after years of conflict and false dawns, Sharon came to embody the country’s eternal quest for security.
Critics said Sharon suffered from a Napoleon complex and consciously encouraged a cult of personality that posed a threat to democracy.
In his memoirs, he wrote that he often thought back to “working with my father on that arid slope of land, walking behind him to plant the seeds in the earth he had turned with his hoe. When I felt too exhausted to go on, he would stop for a moment to look backwards, to see how much we had already done. And that would always give me heart for what remained.”
He took the Hebrew name for “plain” (as in the Israeli coastal plain of Sharon) and as a teenager joined the Haganah, the main Jewish underground movement opposed to British rule.
After spending time as a reservist, Sharon was recalled to create and command Unit 101, which was tasked with conducting commando operations against Palestinian guerrillas. It was there that he first won recognition for his brutally effective tactics and retaliatory raids.
His exploits made him a popular swashbuckling figure with many Israelis. At the same time, he gained notoriety among his superiors as a relentless maverick and self-promoter.
After his reputation prevented him from gaining a foothold in the ruling Labour Party, he helped found the opposition Likud coalition that eventually took power under Menachem Begin in 1977. Begin named Sharon as Agriculture minister, a post he used to launch the massive construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. When Begin was reelected in 1981, Sharon gained the post he had long coveted: Defence minister.
Sharon, who saw himself as a master strategist, argued that possession of the West Bank was crucial to Israel’s security and that the nearly one million Palestinians who lived there should look to neighbouring Jordan as their future state.
He saw Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, then based in Beirut and southern Lebanon, as the supreme obstacle to his geopolitical vision. Using PLO raids on Israel as his justification, he set out to break the movement’s power with an ambitious invasion that took the Israeli army to the gates of Beirut.
Sharon took personal command of the operation, at times overruling his own generals and ignoring objections from field commanders who argued he was risking too many soldiers’ lives and inflicting needless damage on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
The operation eventually succeeded in expelling Arafat and his fighters to Tunis. But critics, including some of Begin’s closest advisers, accused Sharon of having deceived the prime minister and the Cabinet about the extent of his invasion plans — allegations Sharon always denied.
The Lebanon campaign eventually alienated the Reagan administration and a large swath of the Israeli public, and helped give birth to a new peace movement inside the country.
Sharon was forced to resign after an independent Israeli judicial commission ruled that he bore indirect responsibility for failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps south of Beirut by Israel’s Lebanese Christian militia allies. He later sued for libel and won a retraction and settlement from Time magazine for an article that claimed he had sanctioned the massacre in advance.
His political career might have ended then, but Sharon clawed his way back into the Cabinet in the politically fractious “national unity governments” that ruled between 1984 and 1990, and later resumed his settlement-building programme for the West Bank and Gaza as housing minister under Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Even though Shamir was considered a hard-liner, Sharon campaigned against him from the right, undermining the government’s efforts to placate Washington with a tentative peace plan.
He was widely seen in those days as the self-anointed champion of the hard right who had opposed both the historic Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
Sharon rejected the concept that Israel could gain peace by returning conquered Arab territory remaining convinced that most Arabs would never accept the existence of a Jewish state.
Until Sharon’s final stroke, he remained convinced that only he could successfully oversee Israel’s transition to a more secure state.