Sharon took the fight beyond the 40 kilometer goal all the way to Beirut. With Israel now controlling security, a Christian Lebanese militia, apparently enraged at the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
Israelis were outraged. A commission appointed to investigate the massacre found the government indirectly responsible. Sharon was accused of gross negligence and was forced to resign.
‘Too Old, Too Extreme’
Sharon was tainted by Sabra and Shatilla, but he didn’t disappear from politics. In 1999, he wrested leadership of the Likud Party from Benjamin Netanyahu, who had just lost the national election to Ehud Barak and the Labor Party.
“The almost universal assessment was that [Sharon] had missed any prospect of becoming prime minister,” according to Landau. “He was too old and too extreme. The Likud people said themselves that he is unelectable because he was too right wing, too pro-settlement. That in itself was part of the drama. So quickly he took over the Likud, became a credible leader of the opposition and then beat [Ehud] Barak in the election.”
The 2001 election came amid the Second Intifada, when Israelis were terrorized by car bombs and suicide killings. A year earlier, Sharon had taken a highly publicized tour of the Temple Mount. His appearance at the holy site was “highly provocative,” said Landau. But Sharon’s aim was not to incite the Palestinians, but a political act in opposition to Barak’s policies, the biographer said.
Nevertheless the day after Sharon’s visit, rioting broke out on the Temple Mount. The Israelis responded with live ammunition. “There was blood on the flagstones of the Temple Mount, and from there the violence spread,” Landau said.
Sharon won the 2001 election and launched an offensive on the West Bank. He also began construction of a security barrier to impede access of would-be terrorists into Israel.
Sharon distrusted Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat — “he hated Arafat,” Abrams said — and concluded that in the absence of a Palestinian partner, ‘[Israel would act unilaterally. In a highly controversial move, he decided to abandon Israel’s settlements in Gaza and withdraw Israel’s military presence from the territory.
“He was able to take enormous ‘[political risks,” said Abrams. “He decided it was time to settle Israel’s borders, if not for all time then for decades at least. I think he planned to do something in the West Bank — pulling settlements back to the fence line.”
“It’s important to remember how embattled he was in 2004 and 2005,” Abrams continued. “He said, ‘The left can’t do anything and the right doesn’t want to do anything, and if I fail, no one else will do anything.’ ”
With the Gaza pullout, Sharon, always anathema to the left, was suddenly condemned by the right as well. More than one religious critic — including televangelist Pat Robertson in 2006 and the spokesman for Hebron’s Jewish community last week — attributed the stroke that befell him as divine punishment for pulling Israel out of Gaza.
“The main criticism from people on the right is that he was elected on a right-of-center platform and he never said he was going to get out of Gaza,” said Abrams. “In August 2005, they withdrew, without violence, which was extraordinary.”
In the upheaval over the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon left the political party he created and formed the centrist Kadima Party, where he was joined by progressive members of Likud and others. On Jan. 4, 2006, he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma. He was replaced as prime minister by Ehud Olmert.
By that time, many Israelis had had a change of heart about Sharon, said Landau. “The night that he was struck down with a stroke, there was grieving, there was crying. To me, the remarkable feature of that evening was that among the people crying were people who, when he became prime minister, were so discomfited, they were seriously talking about leaving the country.”
Sharon largely left the headlines until last week when it was announced that his condition had become critical that his life was “definitely in danger.”
“Even if you had known nothing about him, he had a personality that radiated and embraced you as if you were equal to him,” said Rabbi Chaim Landau, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis who met the then-defense minister during an Israel Bonds-sponsored mission to Israel. “You left him believing you had met a rare individual who was going to leave a lasting legacy for Israel. He was a man who without any apology would leave his stamp on Israel without caring about what the world would think.”
Echoing Landau, Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said one overarching feature stood out from Sharon’s sometimes contradictory record.
“Simply put, Ariel Sharon was a leader,” said Terrill. “Whether on the battlefield or in politics, Sharon was a man of determination, resilience and strength. His love for his land and his people was a constant reminder of his resolve. His memory will be a blessing forever.”