Ariel Sharon: Israel’s Soldier and Strongman, 1928-2014

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Ariel Sharon died Saturday after having spent the last eight of his 85 years on life support. Incapacitated by a coma that followed a massive stroke, Sharon’s last hours were spent with members of his family at his bedside. Outside, an Israeli nation watched with one eye on the news and another on the past, re-assessing the qualities of a leader whose lifetime spanned the life of the nation.

The long illness, out of public view, seemed to transform how Israelis viewed Sharon. In active life, he had always been a warrior first — a profoundly polarizing one, in the thick of every major conflict during the nearly six decades Sharon spent either in the Israeli military or running it. As an invalid, the hard edges disappeared.

When Sharon was remembered at all in recent years, it was for the five years he spent as prime minister. His signature actions in office – including the unilateral pull-out  of Jewish settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, and leaving behind the rightist Likud Party he founded to start the center-right Kadima –  were seen as the bold strokes of a confident leader, a quality more associated with the country’s vanishing Founding generation than the media-genic politicians who followed.

“People are forgiving him for what happened in the past, and he is seen as a national icon today,” his longtime media adviser, Ra’anan Gisson told TIME last week, after doctors announced that the end was finally coming. “This is the reincarnation of Israel that people would like to see in the future.”

The following piece on Sharon, “The Lonely Warrior,” was written by Lisa Beyer and ran in TIME magazine on Jan. 9, 2006 after Sharon had slipped into a coma.

To his detractors, Ariel Sharon will always seem the fanatic. He convinced Menachem Begin that invading Lebanon in 1982 would be worth the costs, and in 2000 he insisted on visiting the Temple Mount, the Muslim-controlled holy site in Jerusalem—a walkabout that helped trigger the second intifadeh. As Israel’s Foreign Minister, he refused to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand at the Wye Plantation peace talks in 1998 and eventually made sure Arafat spent his last years barricaded in his offices in Ramallah, unable to jet around the world espousing the Palestinian cause. His planetary dimensions—at 5 ft. 7 in., he weighed as much as 312 lbs.—have long suggested a lack of discipline at the table that many think reflects a deeper wildness. At one point, American intelligence monitored Sharon’s weight in an effort to predict his actions—the theory being the more he consumed, the more adveanturously he would behave. Alluding to his politics, Sharon once acknowledged that he was thought of as someone who “eats Arabs for breakfast.”

That is one image of Ariel Sharon: the right-wing zealot. In the past few years, another reputation has taken hold: Sharon reborn as peacemaker. The idea is that, having achieved his dream of becoming Prime Minister of Israel in 2001 at the age of 73, Sharon would—in a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of way—become the man to reconcile the Israelis and Palestinians once and for all. That was his campaign slogan: “Only Sharon can bring peace.” And people inside and outside Israel began to believe it after Sharon, the man who once planned and nurtured the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, had them forcibly evacuated last August, enabling Israeli troops to leave and turning the entire Gaza Strip at last over to Palestinian self-rule. In the weeks before Sharon’s debilitating stroke, rumors abounded that he was preparing to make bold withdrawals in the West Bank as well.

Sharon, however, has always resisted the stereotypes imposed on him. He was never an unrelenting right-wing ideologue nor, in recent years, a devotee of peace-making. Politically, Sharon is best known as a co-founder of the hawkish Likud bloc, but he has been a member of four other parties, including the precursor to the left-wing Labor Party, in which he started out, and his own creation, Shlomzion, which flirted with doves.

Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip served the interests of peace, although that was perhaps not why Sharon carried it out. His emissaries suggested that he quit Gaza—a sandy, squalid quarter to which few Israelis feel any attachment—to win goodwill in the world in order to strengthen Israel’s claim to its more valued settlements in the West Bank. Media reports recently suggested Sharon was prepared to unilaterally draw a border in the West Bank between Israel and what might become a Palestinian state, emptying Jewish settlements that fell on the wrong side. It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps a good one, but it’s not peacemaking, which requires mutual consent. Sharon almost certainly would have apportioned more West Bank land to Israel than the Palestinians would have kept the conflict alive. His notion of coming to terms with the Palestinians is a bit like the idea that getting out of a bad marriage is as simple as saying, “I divorce thee,” and dictating the property settlement.

But what made Sharon such an enduring—and ultimately appealing—politician was his obdurate self-belief, a refusal to be bound by the constraints of negotiated agreements or ideology. Whatever Sharon did, he was at least as devoted to the fight as to the cause. That is what made him one of the greatest—some peers say the greatest—military commander in Israeli history. It’s what enabled him, from a variety of Cabinet posts, to construct settlements in the face of international opprobrium. But it’s also what allowed him not only to evacuate Gaza but, 23 years earlier, to tear down settlements in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and use water cannons to force out the Israelis there, putting Israel in compliance with Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Sharon loved the military. He writes in his autobiography that it was in the camaraderie of the army that he first experienced expressions of familial love that he had missed out on as a child. He grew up in Kfar Malal, a moshav, or collection of farms in which major equipment is jointly owned. His parents were so prickly that the family was ostracized on the moshav. Life was hard. Theirs was a three-room house made of mud and manure walls. Sharon’s response was to focus on work. “You could lose yourself in it,” he wrote.

At 13, armed with a club and a dagger, he joined the older moshavniks guarding the fields at night from sporadic attacks by Arab villagers living nearby. “They were not afraid of anything,” he observed of the moshavniks, a quality he emulated the rest of his life. He respected the moshavniks’ views about the local Arabs: they believed the Arabs had “full rights in the land” but only Jews had rights “over the land.” Translation: you can live here, but under us.

Sharon, known as Arik to everyone, was just 14 when he joined the Haganah, a Jewish militia in British mandatory Palestine. Six years later he fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that erupted after Israel declared its independence. As he rose through the ranks, he played a significant role in every one of Israel’s wars. In 1967 he commanded one of three divisions that wrested the Sinai peninsula from Egypt.  In 1973 he led a counterattack in Sinai that broke through Egyptian lines and ended up just 60 miles outside Cairo.

Where Sharon fought, there was usually controversy. As head of Unit 101, Israel’s first commando team, he was assigned in 1953 to avenge the murder of an Israeli woman and her two toddlers by Palestinian infiltrators from the West Bank village of Qibya. Sharon’s forces destroyed a few dozen buildings in Qibya, killing 69 villagers and earning Israel a censure at the U.N. Charged with cleaning Palestinian fighters out of the now Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip after the ’67 war, he did so with ruthless efficiency. It was Sharon who pushed Israeli Prime Minister Begin to bomb Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981, an operation applauded today but widely condemned then.

Israel’s most divisive war is often laid at Sharon’s feet: the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which he planned as Minister of Defense. One objective, running the P.L.O. out of Lebanon, was largely achieved, but the scheme to install in power the leader of the Lebanese Phalangist militia, a Christian group friendly to Israel, was a debacle. After Phalangist forces massacred as many as 800 men, women and children at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatila, an Israeli inquiry concluded that Sharon bore “indirect” responsibility, forcing him to resign as Defense Minister. Sharon sued TIME for $50 million for a 1983 cover story that said a secret appendix to the Israeli report stated, in effect, that he had encouraged the massacre. In 1985 a federal jury in New York City concluded that TIME had not libeled Sharon, though it also found that the magazine had acted negligently; after being allowed to examine the appendix during the trial, TIME acknowledged that it had erred in describing what the appendix said and apologized.

Sharon’s lifelong militarism is often mistaken for lifelong rightism. In fact, he spent his military career in the bosom of Mapai, the precursor to the Labor Party, as a favorite of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. Sharon remained close to those in Labor, especially his friend Shimon Peres. Sharon served as a special adviser to Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1970s.

Those good relations are partly the product of good manners. Belying his oafish appearance, Sharon was a charmer. At the house he shared with his wife Lily until her death in March 2000, on their 1,000-acre ranch on the edge of the Negev Desert, he was an enthusiastic and attentive host. “Please, more lemonade, more cookies,” he would insist to visitors.

After years of political probation following the Lebanon war, it was, ironically, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who gave Sharon his final big break. At peace talks in the summer of 2000, Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the bulk of the West Bank, including some part of East Jerusalem. Arafat refused the deal. Presumably to protest Barak’s offer to divide Jerusalem, Sharon, accompanied by dozens of Israeli police, took the unusual step of visiting what Jews call the Temple Mount, the plateau that today hosts al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The visit provoked rioting and an Israeli response that sparked the second intifadeh, which together with Israel’s countermeasures has claimed some 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives. While some Israelis and Palestinians blamed Sharon for provoking the violence, it soon became clear that Arafat, who fanned the unrest, had been spoiling for a fight and would have taken any excuse.

Sharon had always opposed the Oslo peace agreements, arguing that Arafat would just use self-rule to wage war against Israel from up close. As a Palestinian mob lynched two Israeli soldiers on camera, as Palestinian marksmen shot into Israeli houses, Sharon’s view came to be accepted by a growing number of his compatriots, propelling him to power in 2001. Israelis, right and left, were spoiling for a fight too, and Sharon was just the man to deliver one. In his first year in office, he was relatively restrained, punching hard but always calibrating his response to avoid a slap-down by the U.S. But after Sept. 11, the Bush Administration moved closer to Sharon’s zero-tolerance view of Palestinian terrorism. So when a bomber killed 30 people at a Netanya hotel during Passover in 2002, Sharon went all out. He reinvaded the cities of the West Bank with brutal force, using the army’s presence to get intelligence on the terrorists and to make arrests.He stepped up construction of a controversial barrier, started by Barak, that cut through the West Bank and walled out the Palestinians. In 2004, Sharon ordered the assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and, later, another of the group’s leaders, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, steps that previously had been considered too provocative. And he got results; the intifadeh never recovered its early strength, and Israelis regained their sense of security. Sharon succeeded at what many security experts said was impossible: he found a military solution to terrorism.

Sharon was elected and re-elected in 2003 for his pugnacity, not his vision. He swam among many political ideologies, and none have found the solution to the Palestinian problem. But in the final years of his tenure as Prime Minister, with what was likely to be his last election looming, he seemed closer than ever to defining an ideology of his own. The hard-line Likudniks still believe that Israel can somehow hold onto all the territories. Sharon came to accept the Labor argument that it is impossible for Israel to rule over millions of Arabs indefinitely and still remain a democracy with a Jewish majority. But Labor’s efforts to negotiate a division of the land with the Palestinians have failed. Sharon may have found a third way: draw the line yourself and see what happens. If his successors in his new party Kadima have a chance to try it out, the success of the venture will define a unique political legacy for Sharon. If they don’t, he will have been a hell of a warrior.