It is a testament to Ariel Sharon’s fierce will, as much as it is to Israeli medical prowess, that he survived in a coma for nearly eight years despite suffering a massive stroke in January of 2006. Sharon lingered like a ghost, haunting the harsh land he so jealously loved — and whose fate he so profoundly shaped as man of war, as politician and prime minister and as the architect of the mass settlement of Israelis in territories occupied in the war of 1967.
Sharon’s specter looms over Israel’s current generation of politicians and generals, whose achievements shrink in comparison with the iconic, iconoclastic and often reckless 85-year-old soldier-statesman who died on Jan. 11. Sharon’s instrumental role in every major Israeli battle, from the moment the state fought its way into existence in 1948 to the abortive 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and his harsh military campaigns to suppress Palestinian resistance made him a figure feared and reviled in the Arab world. And yet he remained an enigma: Some among Sharon’s heirs may be bold enough to go to war, but it’s less obvious that they’re able to make peace in the way that Sharon — and perhaps only Sharon — could have.
The unsolved mystery left behind by Sharon is this: What prompted a soldier who had spent his life defending and expanding the state of Israel, often with callous indifference to the suffering inflicted on perceived enemies, and an implacable opponent of negotiating a two-state peace, to pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 and hand it over to the Palestinians? Was it a one-off act to appease international opinion and strengthen Israel’s grip elsewhere? Or was it the harbinger of a unilateral withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, a late-in-life realization that Israel could not maintain its Jewish identity or live peacefully with its neighbors as long as the Palestinians were denied a homeland?
Deciphering Sharon’s intentions will keep historians bickering for decades. Uri Dan, a lifelong confidant and biographer, claims the prime minister told him in 2005, “Fortune tellers claim to know that another disengagement is planned. Another lie. The withdrawal from Gaza is an isolated act.” Other close associates, including Ehud Olmert, who took over as prime minister after Sharon’s illness, say otherwise.
What’s less in dispute, though, is that Sharon may have been one of the few leaders with sufficient credibility on the Israeli right to call a halt to the continuing settlement of the West Bank — which many, including the U.S., have warned imperils prospects for a two-state peace. When Sharon fell into a coma, there were 250,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank; today, according to Peace Now, an anti-occupation Israeli activist group, there are over 340,000.
The expansion of settlements had been Sharon’s aim — “facts on the ground,” he called them, created to establish a permanent Israeli grip on the occupied territories. As general and later as cabinet minister of many portfolios in various governments starting in 1977, Sharon facilitated the settlement of tens of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, despite the U.N. Security Council’s declaring such settlement illegal.
As prominent Israeli writer David Grossman wrote in The Guardian, “It is difficult to imagine how the hundreds of flourishing Israeli settlements in the occupied territories could have been built without his determination, his questionable methods and his ideological fervor.”
It was Sharon, in 1972, as general in charge of the Southern Command, who earned the nickname “Bulldozer” for clearing land in densely populated Gaza for Israeli settlers. And yet it was Sharon who, 33 years later, turfed the settlers out, just as he did in 1982 when the Sinai settlement of Yamit was evacuated in line with the Camp David agreement with Egypt.
Sharon was less an ideologue than a pragmatist who believed his courage, strategic vision and hard-core methods were essential to his country’s survival. As a result, he did whatever he deemed necessary, even when that meant defying his superiors. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, remarked of Sharon, then an impetuous young officer, “If he could overcome his bad habit of not telling the truth, he could be an exemplary military leader.” Other Israeli leaders were less squeamish about Sharon’s ways; in battle, he delivered.
Sharon was born Ariel Scheinermann in February 1928 to secular Belarusian parents who lived in the farming village of Kfar Malal in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. As a teenager, Sharon joined the Haganah, an underground paramilitary force that fought the British and formed the core of the Israeli Defense Forces. In the war of 1948 he became a platoon leader and was wounded at Latrun, an ill-fated Israeli attempt to break an Arab siege of the Jews living in Jerusalem in which 139 soldiers from his brigade were killed.
After 1948, Sharon was put in charge of Unit 101, a special-forces outfit deployed to strike behind enemy lines. In 1953 the unit attacked the village of Qibya in what was then the Jordanian-occupied West Bank. Israel believed Qibya was the source of constant cross-border attacks on its civilians, and Sharon’s men dynamited some 50 houses, killing 69 Palestinians who had been sheltering inside. Sharon wrote in his diary, “The orders were utterly clear: Qibya was to be an example for everyone,” although he also wrote that his men had believed the houses were empty.
The 1956 Suez war found Sharon in command of a paratroop brigade, once again disregarding orders and advancing deeper into Sinai than his commanders intended. He was reprimanded, not for the last time, for flouting orders.
His military legend was burnished in the June 1967 war, when he led a daring thrust by an armored battalion that shattered Egyptian defenses. He ran into trouble with his superiors again in the war of October 1973, when he disregarded orders and punched across the Suez Canal — but his bold move put Israel back in control of the Sinai.
Hailed for his military prowess as “King Arik of Israel,” it was time for Sharon to enter politics. Otherwise, as the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin acidly put it, “Sharon is liable to surround the prime minister’s office with tanks.”
The warrior-turned-politician helped bring Begin’s right-wing Likud party to power in 1977, earning a cabinet position from which he empowered the settlement movement. In 1981, Begin made him defense minister, but it was then that Sharon’s luck on the battlefield began to turn. He persuaded Begin to invade Lebanon in order to drive out the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. That goal was achieved, but the 18-year occupation of Lebanon that followed became deeply unpopular at home and spurred the creation of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, which remains Israel’s most dangerous foe.
But it was the massacres in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila that came to define Sharon’s war in Lebanon. From Sept. 16 to 18 of 1982, Sharon’s forces secured a perimeter around the camps while the Lebanese Phalange militia slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian refugees. An official Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon personally responsible “for not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed” and urged his dismissal as defense minister. Throughout the Arab world, Sharon was thereafter called “the Butcher of Beirut.”
Even many Israelis reacted with revulsion to the massacres and the war, but many others viewed Sharon simply as a “shtarker,” Yiddish for a “tough” or a “hard man” useful in scaring off enemies. And Israel had many enemies.
On Sept. 28, 2000, Sharon the “shtarker” reappeared. While then–Prime Minister Ehud Barak remained committed to negotiations with the Palestinians and Bill Clinton’s administration over how Jews and Arabs might share Jerusalem’s holy sites in a final peace agreement, Sharon chose to demonstrate his displeasure by walking, with a phalanx of over 1,000 security officers, onto the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, declaring that the site would remain under Israeli control. The riot triggered by that piece of political theater is widely viewed as the first salvo of the second intifada, which ran through 2005 and resulted in the killing of more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis. The uprising turned Israelis sharply to the right, with Sharon leading Likud to victory in a February 2001 election.
But as prime minister, Sharon stunned the world — and especially his own party’s hard-liners, now led by Benjamin Netanyahu — by ordering a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The move proved disastrous, not least because Sharon refused to deal directly with the Palestinians whom he distrusted since he was a youngster plowing the fields near Kfar Malal. Instead of arranging a peaceful and orderly handover to the Palestinian Authority, the summary pull-out left a chaotic power vacuum filled by more-radical groups, which began targeting nearby Israeli towns and villages with homemade Kassam rockets.
Facing a rebellion within Likud over his withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon outflanked Netanyahu by defecting with a few of his stalwarts, Olmert and Tzipi Livni among them, and forming a new party, Kadima. It was then that illness struck. Superstitious Israelis blame it on a curse, placed on Sharon by an irate rabbi after the Gaza disengagement, but it may have had more to do with his girth: Sharon was never one to hold back on food, and his limousine held an ample stash of snacks, even caviar.
Sharon, even by his many critics, is grudgingly compared with Ben-Gurion. Both men were entranced by the sun-blasted beauty of the Negev, both understood the importance of military facts on the ground in determining Israel’s fate. But Ben-Gurion chose to spend his final days in a modest cabin on a kibbutz, while Sharon built himself a rambling estate near the ruins of Hodj, an Arab village whose inhabitants the Israelis long ago expelled to Gaza. It is expected that Sharon will be buried there, next to his second wife, Lily.
The country he leaves behind, though, remains unable thus far to finish his story by answering the question of whether to withdraw or double down on the West Bank.