This week, the family, friends, admirers — and perhaps even critics — of Ariel Sharon marked the fourth anniversary of the former prime minister’s massive stroke.
It’s a stark and sad reminder of how the mighty — all the mighty — do eventually fall.
The now-81-year-old Sharon never regained consciousness from the stroke he suffered Jan. 4, 2006, and medical experts say he probably never will. He lives in a long-term care facility in Ra’anana, where the once burly soldier continues to breathe on his own. Family and friends visit frequently, according to reports.
It’s a sad end for the man called Erik by his admirers. Bold, aggressive, crafty, reckless, allegedly corrupt, but always patriotic, Sharon may or may not go down in history as Israel’s greatest leader, but he will almost certainly go down as its most controversial.
At the height of his power Sharon commanded Israeli armies in the field for over three decades. His actions in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War are credited for turning the tide of battle there, and, perhaps, saving the country. He then turned to politics, becoming a star of the right-wing Likud party and the man who led it to victory in the 2001 election.
A stalwart conservative, he is considered the architect of the West Bank settlements, but before his stroke he accepted that concessions were necessary for peace, broke with Likud and founded the Kadima party to make those tough decisions.
Sharon’s legacy will almost certainly be marred by two incidents — his 1956 attack on Egyptian forces in the Sinai’s Mitla Pass, against his superiors’ orders, and the 1982 massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by Christian Phalange fighters. For the latter, a commission of inquiry found Sharon, who was defense minister at the time, indirectly responsible for the attacks. Many of his critics thought, wrongly, that the taint would end his career.
Even when he was out of power, Sharon’s mere presence could change the course of history. When he visited the Temple Mount on Sept. 28, 2001, escorted by 1,000 police, Palestinian terrorist groups exploited the moment as a pretext to launch a violent intifada against Israelis.
When he later became prime minister, though, Sharon embarked on a unilateral disengagement policy, which led to the eviction of more than 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 — still a hotly debated move in Israel. Supporters say it put the onus on the Palestinian Authority to make a corresponding peace gesture, which it never did; critics say it provided Hamas a massive base of operations while forcing thousands in southern Israel to live with the constant threat of rocket attacks.
The arguments over Sharon’s legacy will not abate, even after he finally passes away. One thing most agree on, though, watching such a giant of Israeli history waste away in a rest home is a tragic sight. Sharon’s name remains on the mishaberach lists in many synagogues and Jews continue to pray for his recovery.
No matter what you think of him, Sharon represents history, and history is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, it contains our DNA, our philosophy, our strength and our hopes. This isn’t just the Sharon family’s anniversary; it’s ours as well.