Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has died aged 85
In a remarkably prescient passage of Amos Oz’s 1991 novel Fima, one of his characters—a taxi driver—voices his views on the peace process. The cabby talks about the need to divide the land with the Palestinians, likening it to a Tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) that two people are fighting over which should be cut in half. Prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords this was itself an unusual viewpoint in Israel. But then the character continues, “What I will say to you, and listen hard, is there’s only one man in this country strong enough to cut the tallit in half without getting cut in half himself, and that’s Arik Sharon. Nobody else can do it. They’ll take it from him.”
Whatever one thought of Ariel Sharon’s politics, Arik was a man of strength and action. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but he never shied away from the responsibility to assess the situation, to determine the best response, and to act. Sharon’s self-possession and determination were the source of his most spectacular triumphs, as well as his gravest errors.
His nickname “the bulldozer” was apt to the end of his political career, when in 2005 he smashed through the walls of opposition to forcibly withdraw Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank—partially fulfilling the unlikely prediction of Oz’s taxi driver. It was not the first time Sharon had forced Israeli settlers to abandon their homes. He oversaw the evacuation of Israel’s settlements in the Sinai as Defence Minister in 1982—part of the implementation of the peace agreement with Egypt.
When, after 1967, Sharon believed Israel’s national interests required retention of the territories Israel had captured, he led the way in promoting settlement construction. When he determined that Israel’s continued presence had become the greater threat to its future, he was willing to go back to the drawing board and tear down what he had helped create.
The same was true of his approach to party politics. Sharon was instrumental in the merger of several parties to form the right-wing Likud party in 1973, helping lay the groundwork for the political “revolution” which toppled Labour in the 1977 election. But when the party became a stone around his neck as Prime Minister in 2005 he discarded it, establishing the more centrist Kadima party with politicians willing to continue the path of disengagement from the Palestinians in the West Bank.
The same certainty of purpose characterised Sharon’s military leadership. In From Beirut to Jerusalem Thomas Friedman contrasted Sharon’s hard-edged focus and determination with the more ambiguous, political culture of the Lebanon he invaded in 1982, where the worst of enemies might drink coffee together or send one another flowers. Friedman wrote: “Sharon did not play games with his enemies. He killed them.”
He was a man prepared to do what he believed was required, often on his own authority. His habit for exceeding or circumventing orders infuriated his peers and superiors. But though he may have been a highly troublesome subordinate, Sharon inspired devotion among those he led. His extraordinary capabilities as a battlefield commander made him a key figure in some of the most remarkable military acts in the Israel Defense Force’s history, not least the counter attack across the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. According to David Landau, whose major new biography of Sharon is published this month, “his role in the matter of crossing the Suez Canal was probably crucial and… without him they may not have succeeded.”
Aside from Sharon’s military record, and his critical role in establishing and then reversing the settlement project, he will be remembered for the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982. As defence minister in the government of Likud founder Menachem Begin, he led the cabinet into approving his invasion plan, and was later accused of failing to make clear its full scale or implications, including the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut, and backing Phalange’s Bashir Gemayel for the Lebanese presidency. While Israel succeeded in expelling the PLO and Arafat from Lebanon, the wider political goals evaporated with Gemayel’s assassination. The overall human cost was considerable, and it turned into a diplomatic disaster for Israel.
The determination by an Israeli commission of inquiry that Sharon was personally responsible for failing to prevent Christian Phalange militias—Israel’s allies—from massacring Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, was the low point of his career, and a shameful episode for Israel. Mass protests against Sharon in Israel played a role in forcing his resignation as minister of defence.
But men like Sharon are few and far between—possessed of such self-belief that they can withstand the crushing opprobrium that would destroy most other people. Sharon wrote in his 1989 autobiography of the period following his resignation: “At times you are up, at times you are down. But the wheel keeps moving. And thinking about these things again and again, it seemed to me that even now perhaps the political wheel had not come to a complete halt for me, that though I was somewhere near the bottom, it was still turning. That wheel was moved, I knew, not by opinion… but by the circumstances and problems that surround us, by the changing conditions of our national life.”
At last, the highly remarkable, deeply controversial, and seemingly unstoppable wheel of Sharon’s life, has come to its final rest. The impact on the country he served and led, both as a military and political leader, will be felt for generations.