During the eight years that Ariel Sharon lay in a hospital bed, sustained by a feeding tube and turned at regular intervals to prevent bedsores, his great body shrank and his legacy slowly shifted. Both admired and reviled as Israel’s signature warrior during 58 of his first 72 years of life, Sharon in his coma has been more remembered for his only term as prime minister, five years marked first by restraint, then by actions both bold and unexpected, starting with the decision to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
“The things you see from here, you don’t see from there,” he once reportedly said, explaining the difference in perspective when you head up your nation’s government. The quote, which likely did not originate with Sharon, was in recent years frequently attributed to him, along with a certain sagacity. A figure who had a reputation for impulsive action gradually lost his rough edges.
“I think there are two Sharons,” says Efraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. “One is the military man, who was a great hero, a maverick, excellent commander. He crossed the canal, was adored by his troops. As an ex-paratrooper I can testify to that.” That would be the Suez Canal, which Egyptian troops breached in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Sharon led the unit that took it back.
“And the second Sharon – the politician — was full of contradictions. He built the Likud and he destroyed it,” he says, naming the right-wing party that has dominated Israeli politics since the late 1970s. “He built the settlements and he destroyed the Gaza settlements. It’s a mixed legacy,” Inbar goes on, referencing Sharon’s role in establishing some 200 Jewish communities on occupied Palestinian territory.
In truth, Sharon’s military record was not all one thing, either. The 1982 massacres by Christian militiamen at two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, where Israelis forces had posted guards, cemented his reputation in the Arab world as a gleeful killer.
There’s also the question of how Israeli troops happened to be in Beirut in the first place: The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which lasted 18 years, was largely Sharon’s project – he was then Minister of Defence under Prime Minister Menachem Begin – and carries consequences to this day. Intended to root out Palestinian militants, the incursion damaged Israel’s image and gave Iran the excuse to create Hizballah, the Shiite militia that remains, long after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal. Hizballah now dominates Lebanon politically and militarily, and is the major military threat on Israel’s border, with tens of thousands of rockets pointed at Israel’s north, and lately has moved more dangerous longer-range missiles closer to Israel, including an anti-ship cruise missile that travels at the speed of sound. With operatives working in other countries, Hizballah is also the most formidable covert threat Israel faces globally.
“That was a long, long time ago,” insists Dov Weissglass, who was Sharon’s chief of staff during his tenure as Prime Minister, insisting that his former boss’s legacy in office is far more important. “From 2001, when he became Prime Minister, more and more people have learned to appreciate him as a political leader, as a premier and most of all for political courage.” The evidence is there in Friday’s weekend edition of Yedioth Ahoronth, Israel’s leading daily. “How would Ariel Sharon have acted in this situation?” columnist Nahum Barnea asks of Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort this week to force agreement from Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. “Sharon as prime minister would not have reached this situation. Instead of letting the American secretary of state manage him, he would have aspired to a unilateral move, which would ease Israel’s security situation and relieve it of international pressures.”
The Gaza pullout, which removed 8,500 Jewish settlers and the troops that had protected them from the Palestinian coastal territory, was such a move, intended, says Weissglass, not as a gesture of peace but to spare spending further resources on a place Israel knew it would not keep in any final arrangement. Sharon planned something similar on the West Bank, where he extended a physical barrier that will run 400 miles, unilateral actions that relied not on negotiations but bald certainty. Weissglass, the former chief of staff, quoted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as calling Sharon “‘a hard liner, but yet with him, yes was yes, no was no. And he was a man of truth.’” It was said in the context of comparison to the present controversial Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“People are longing for [Sharon’s] personality, for his leadership,” says Weisglass. “I’m amazed to see how for three days he’s on top of the news. I thought after eight years where he’s not here, neither there, this would be local news, not international.”
Part of the reason surely is Sharon’s larger-than-life qualities – starting with the stomach, a significant part of his legend. An Israeli officer once recalled being asked by an Egyptian counterpart if it was true that Sharon ate an entire sheep for breakfast. Told otherwise, the Egyptian appeared to prefer to believe the legend.
But part of it is the passing of the “founder’s generation”—Israeli leaders who emerged from the crucible of the nation’s 1948 war for independence, rather than the television screen.
A year before Sharon’s first stroke, a New York Times Magazine profile asserted that “Now 76, Sharon can plausibly lay claim to having shaped his state’s geographic and moral terrain and international image — for better or for worse — more than any other Israeli leader since David Ben-Gurion. There is no single American figure to compare him with. He is Andrew Jackson, George Patton, Robert Moses.”
That still goes, says his former media advisor, Ra’anan Gissin – perhaps more so for the time hovering between one world and the next.
“I think what you are seeing is Sharon being re-born again,” Gissin tells TIME. “People are forgiving him for what happened in the past, and he is seen as a national icon today. I believe that’s what’s going to happen. He is the only Israeli prime minister who will be labeled as having something of significance for the future, in terms of what he did. He is actually the whole history of the state of Israel, made in one person, through his deeds…He went through all the aspects of Israeli life, full scale.
“This is the reincarnation of Israel that people would like to see in the future.”