Ariel Sharon (File)
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.
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.”