As news of the death of Ariel Sharon spread through the region, local Jewish community and political leaders reflected on the life of the former Israeli prime minister, a fierce warrior and military leader who was known as both the patron of Israel’s settlement drive and the man who uprooted those same communities.
Sharon, who passed away last Saturday at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv with his sons by his side, was 85 and had been in a coma since suffering a series of strokes in 2006.
Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, met Sharon several times on trips to Israel. He remembered him as “brusque, quiet and tough.”
“You knew he was in the room,” said Abramson. “He was complex. He was a warrior, but at the same time he wanted peace for Israel. I think he was one of the last of the great Israeli forefathers who built the country.”
By all accounts, Sharon was known for his girth and his fearless determination to reach his objective, whether it was military or political. For his tenacity, Sharon was given the nickname “the Bulldozer.”
Yet, that blunt reputation belied Sharon’s tactical finesse. George W. Bush administration official Elliott Abrams met with Sharon numerous times in the early 2000s, when the president issued his “road map” for Middle East peace.
“President Bush liked him because Sharon was trying to do something,” said Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He was a canny and clever politician. He’d say, ‘I’m just a simple farmer,’ but he wasn’t just a simple farmer. He maneuvered his way through the Cabinet and Knesset and the Likud Party as no one else could.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) recalled meeting Sharon during his last visit to the United States and again when the senator was in Israel.
“He was an extremely impressive individual,” said Cardin. “What’s tragic, in addition to his long illness, is that before he became ill, he was singularly focused on moving the peace process forward. He was making a lot of changes, and we lost momentum after that.”
Tanks Around The Knesset
Ariel Scheinerman was born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928. It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, who gave him his
Hebrew surname, Sharon. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, he was wounded in the battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem.
In the 1950s, with terror attacks against Israel from neighboring Arab countries on the rise, Sharon created and led Unit 101, which was charged with staging retaliatory raids.
He fought in the Sinai in the wars of 1956 and 1967. As a reserve general, he led a controversial crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.
From early in his service, Sharon was dogged by accusations that he exceeded orders. According to Israeli journalist David Landau, whose biography of Sharon, “Arik,” has just been published, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, those criticisms were politically motivated.
“In the Yom Kippur War there were accusations flying around between the generals and the political parties that saw themselves somehow connected,” said Landau. “He was accused of stepping outside his orders by his political and military rivals and critics, of whom there were many. And he claimed to his last day that these accusations were not well grounded.”
As a neophyte politician, Sharon brought a number of parties together to form the Likud bloc headed by longtime opposition leader Menachem Begin. When Begin became prime minister in 1977, he appointed Sharon agriculture minister.
In his new role, Sharon directed the government’s expanding settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon is popularly seen as the driving force behind the settlements, but Landau says that notion is incorrect.
“Both Begin and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir wanted to build these settlements, and Sharon’s role was the executor and not the formulator of policy,” Landau said. “It was Shamir who claimed to the American administration that he had this tough minister building settlements. But in Israel I don’t think many people thought that.”
And Sharon was willing to take down settlements as well as put them up. After the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979, Sharon oversaw the destruction of the town of Yamit in the Sinai in advance of the Israeli withdrawal.
What Sharon wanted was to become defense minister, a post Begin was reluctant to give him. Begin reportedly announced that he was worried that if he put Sharon in charge of the army, one morning he might wake up to find Sharon had circled the Knesset with tanks.
“Sharon and Begin met in the men’s room, and Begin said, ‘Well you have to understand, it’s just guys joking around,’” Landau said. “But that comment certainly resounded around the country.”
Begin finally appointed Sharon defense minister in 1981. In 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee to force the Palestine Liberation Organization out of rocket range of Israel’s northern border.