Ariel Sharon, Israel’s 11th prime minister who died Saturday at Sheba Medical Center in Tel HaShomer, Israel, at age 85, will be remembered as one of the most prominent, powerful and divisive figures in Israeli history.
“He was one of the last of Israel’s greatest generation — the people who founded our state,” said Brian Eglash, senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who once met with Sharon during a trip to Israel. “He has a lot of legacies.”
Indeed he does.
As prime minister, Sharon shocked Israeli politics when in 2005, after spending years expanding Jewish settlements, he ordered all Israeli troops and settlers to withdraw from Gaza. Shortly after, he severed ties with Likud — the political party he’d been a member of since 1977 and personally led since 1999 — to form Kadima, a centrist party with an eye toward further territorial withdrawal and seeking a two-state solution toward achieving regional peace.
“He had such a huge impact on Israeli society,” Eglash said. “He was able to transcend the warrior persona into pursuing peace.”
Though he thought it pointless to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, he developed a gracious relationship with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas.
As a military officer, Sharon had a reputation for being aggressive, unrelenting and defiant — traits which stuck with him through the bulk of his political career.
Sharon first made a name for himself as a paratrooper and platoon commander in the Haganah (the first iteration of the Israeli Army) during the War of Independence between 1947 and 1949. In 1953, he formed and commanded Unit 101, one of the IDF’s first elite special forces units, charged with preventing and retaliating against Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians by conducting raids into Arab territories.
One such raid, which Sharon led on the Jordanian town of Kibya on the West Bank in 1953, saw 69 people killed when the unit blew up 45 houses and a school. More than half of the casualties were women and children. Israel denied government-sanctioned involvement in the raid, though Sharon defended the attack in his memoirs, stating that he thought his men checked to make sure the buildings were empty before detonating the explosives.
During the 1956 Suez War, Sharon defied his superiors’ orders when he launched a series of attacks on Egyptian positions near Mt. Sinai’s Mitla Pass. Though his advances ultimately forced Egyptian retreat, he was widely criticized for losing 38 soldiers while circumventing direct orders.
Sharon had been retired from the army for less than two months when the Yom Kippur War started on Oct. 6, 1973, and he was recalled to active duty. Again ignoring his orders in favor of an aggressive strategy, which has been characterized as both brilliant and crazy, Sharon marched his division behind Egyptian lines and across the Suez Canal. The maneuver worked, separating Egypt’s second and third armies and effectively winning a war, which Israel had very nearly lost.
Eglash, who served in the IDF, remembers tales of Sharon’s heroics as staples of Saturday afternoons.
“Every Saturday, we’d sit around and hear of famous battles and war stories, and Sharon was legendary in the forces,” he said. “The name of Sharon was a legend in the army long before he was prime minister.”
He was elected to the Knesset later that year as a member of the Likud party, but resigned a year later to serve as a special adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Prior to the 1977 elections, Sharon made an unsuccessful attempt to replace Menachem Begin as the head of Likud, then tried and failed to catch on with the Labor Party and the Democratic Movement for Change.
Seemingly out of options, he formed his own party, Shlomtzion, which won two Knesset seats. He then agreed to merge his party with Likud. In return, Begin made him minister of agriculture.
Sharon used his position to start constructing new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, helping to solidify the country’s control of the area. After the 1981 elections, Begin made Sharon the defense minister.
It was from there that Sharon organized the invasion of Lebanon in June of 1982, looking to stop the PLO from launching attacks on Israel and assist Christian allies in an effort to halt the PLO’s intention of creating a Palestinian ministate within Lebanon. He said it would take 48 hours.
It turned into a prolonged disaster, which saw Israeli forces bomb and occupy parts of Beirut and stand idly by while Lebanese Maronite militias slaughtered Palestinians. Though an independent commission deemed the IDF indirectly responsible for what became known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the political fallout forced Sharon out as defense minister.
Though many believed him washed up, he nonetheless remained a government fixture. He served as the minister for trade and industry, the minister of housing construction, sat on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and chaired its committee overseeing emigration from the former Soviet Union.
When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, Sharon spent two years as his minister of national infrastructure and one year as the foreign minister.
“When I was in the army, he was the minister of infrastructure,” Eglash said. “There was a building boom all over the country. It was a very vibrant time for Israel.”
He became the leader of Likud after Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in the 1999 election. When Barak’s Labor government collapsed in late 2000, Sharon was elected prime minister.
Sharon’s administration was full of surprises. In 2001, he acknowledged the inevitability of a two-state solution as crucial to stability in the region. He endorsed a peace plan drawn up by the United States, the European Union and Russia, which re-opened diplomatic channels with the Palestinians. His plan of unilateral withdrawal from Israel’s occupied territories made him new friends within Israel’s political left as well as the Palestinian Authority, while alienating members of his own party.
While willing to give some ground, he still maintained a hard, principled line.
“The war of independence has not ended,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2001. “The end of a conflict will come only when the Arab world recognizes the innate right of the Jewish people to establish an independent state in the Middle East.”
Sharon was born Ariel Scheinerman on Feb. 26, 1928, in Kfar Malal, an agricultural moshav (semicollective community) in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. His parents were Labour Zionists who fled Russia in 1922, seeking refuge from the growing anti-Semitism of Communist Russia.
As a teenager, he stood watch on the armed night patrols around Kfar Malal, and joined a paramilitary youth battalion called the Gadna. His friends called him Arik.
Commanding a unit in the Haganah at age 19, he led guerilla raids on Arab forces near his community starting in the fall of 1947. He saw combat on a near-daily basis until he was wounded three times during the battle of Latrun in May of 1948 and nearly bled to death in the field. By December, he’d recovered sufficiently enough to retake command of his unit.
It was while fighting with the Haganah that he took Sharon as his new surname, after the stretch of land north of Tel Aviv known as the Sharon Plain, where he’d grown up. In 1948, he married Margalit Zimmerman, and in 1952, he went on leave from the army and moved with her to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University.
Despite his early successes, the 1960s saw Sharon’s life beset by personal tragedy. His wife Margalit was killed in an automobile accident in 1962. He later married her younger sister, Lily, and the couple had two children. In 1967, Gur, his only child from his first marriage, was killed while he and his friends were playing with an old rifle. Lily Sharon died of cancer in 2000.
In a statement issued Monday, President Barack Obama expressed his condolences and said, “We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples.”
Sharon’s body lay in state at the Knesset on Sunday prior to Monday’s state funeral ceremony, for which dignitaries from across the world came to pay their respects. He was laid to rest beside his wife Lily on Monday at his family’s ranch in the Negev.
(Matthew Wein can be reached at email@example.com.)