Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was laid to rest Monday at his family’s ranch in southern Israel following a state funeral that drew international dignitaries – Vice President Biden represented the U.S. – and scores of Israeli officials.
Sharon had made it known that he wished to be interred at the ranch next to his second wife rather than in the national cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.
Sharon, who was prime minister from 2001until 2006, when a massive stroke left him in a comatose state until his death on Jan. 11 at age 85, was remembered this week as one of Israel’s greatest generals and wiliest politicians – and an enigmatic figure to the very end.
Considered hawkish in his policies (he always said his overriding concern was to protect a nation built on the ashes of the destruction of European Jewry) and known as a builder of settlements, particularly in Judea and Samaria, Sharon paradoxically presided over the dismantling of Jewish communities in the Sinai in the early 1980s following the peace treaty between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and then again during the unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
Lionized and scorned for his bluntness, Sharon was nicknamed “the Bulldozer” both for his tendency to disrespect boundaries and his legendary girth.
In his eulogy for the former prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres called Sharon “a man of the land.”
“He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe,” said Peres.
Sharon, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “had a central role” in building the Israel Defense Forces’ “heritage of valor” and “laid the foundations of the battle doctrine of the IDF, the doctrine of reprisal and initiative in the war against terrorism.”
As prime minister, Sharon also began the construction of Israel’s controversial security fence in the West Bank, which contributed to a drastic drop in terrorist attacks.
Born Ariel Scheinermann in 1928 to Russian-speaking parents in the village of Kfar Malal in the central part of pre-state Israel, Sharon for much of his career was known more for his impetuousness than his pragmatism.
His bravery in the battle for Jerusalem in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence made the infantry unit commander the stuff of legend at the age of 20. He took a bullet to the stomach and, when all seemed hopeless, ordered the soldiers who were able to retreat. He eventually crawled to safety.
In the 1956 war with Egypt, Sharon captured the strategic Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula after defying orders not to advance. During the 1973 war, he again challenged his superiors who feared crossing the Suez Canal was a risky maneuver that would incur too many losses. But Sharon prevailed, leading his forces across the canal and trapping an Egyptian army unit, a move widely considered the turning point in the conflict.
Sharon launched his political career after the Yom Kippur War. His ability to keep an unruly coalition in line helped Likud leader Menachem Begin win the 1977 elections, ending the hegemony that Labor leaders had enjoyed since the founding of the state.
Sharon was rewarded with the agriculture portfolio and after another hard-fought Likud victory in 1981, Begin could hardly deny Sharon the prize he had sought for so long: the defense ministry.
A year later, in June 1982, Sharon launched Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to push back Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization from its mini-state in southern Lebanon. The invasion rankled both the Reagan administration, which had brokered a cease-fire with the PLO nine months earlier, and Sharon’s government colleagues.
On Sharon’s orders, the army breached the 40-kilometer line the government initially said was its goal, pursuing the PLO all the way to Beirut, where it laid siege to the city.
Three months after the start of the incursion, hundreds of Palestinian refugees were killed by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies. A state commission subsequently cleared Sharon of knowing in advance of the massacre, but held him indirectly responsible, asserting that he should have anticipated and prevented the carnage.
The commission recommended Sharon’s dismissal, and by the beginning of 1983 he was gone from power. The exile would not last long, however. Sharon rebuilt his reputation, this time as a careful nurturer of alliances. He was an architect of the national unity governments that lasted until 1990.
When Likud returned to power in 1996, Sharon became national infrastructure minister and later foreign minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 1999, Labor’s Ehud Barak ousted Netanyahu, who temporarily retired from politics, and Sharon became head of the Likud.
The following year the Palestinians launched a bloody uprising that became known as the Second Intifada and derailed Barak’s efforts to accelerate peace talks. The post-Oslo optimism of the mid-1990s had long dissipated in Israel, and the renewed wave of terrorism pushed even many former supporters of accommodation to the right. Sharon was elected prime minister by an overwhelming margin in February 2001.
Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush, who assumed power at the same time, had an affinity dating to 1998, when Sharon hosted the then-Texas governor on a helicopter flight across Israel and the West Bank. Their friendship culminated in Sharon’s greatest diplomatic triumph: the 2004 White House letter recognizing some of Israel’s largest West Bank settlements as realities on the ground and dismissing the demand for a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
In 2005, after the Gaza expulsion had been implemented, Sharon bolted Likud, which had opposed the disengagement, to form Kadima, a centrist party that attracted lawmakers from Likud and Labor.
Yaakov Katz, a former member of Knesset and chairman of Israel’s National Union Party, told JNS that “Sharon really loved the state of Israel. He loved each and every square centimeter of the land. He loved our nation.”
Katz had a special affinity for Sharon, his former commander and then boss, first and foremost for saving his life when wounded in battle during the Yom Kippur War.
Katz noted that Sharon was a major force in rapidly building up Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, areas captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
“All his political life, I was a main consultant to Sharon regarding the building of communities over the Green Line,” said Katz. “When he was minister of housing for two years, I served as his head of operations in Judea and Samaria. In those two years, we succeeded in building 60,000 units including caravans.
“During that period, the government allocated over three billion dollars to bring in the Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. We directed fifty percent of them to Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
“As one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim movement, I can say that today we have three quarters of a million people in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and Sharon was a big part of that.”
Sharon, Katz said, “was like a Caesar” both as a general and a politician.
“He saw himself as the main center of action. As long as he was in the center, anything could be done. The moment if it looked like he might lose his influence, he was ready to push off a little bit on the principles and values he previously maintained, in order to keep himself in power,” Katz said.
When Begin offered Sharon the post of defense minister, Sharon “suddenly became ready and willing to destroy Yamit and all the settlements in Sinai, when just a few days before he was the one who stood behind the principle not to give up a single settlement,” said Katz.
According to Katz, the quality of doing what it takes to remain in power carried over to Sharon’s time in office as prime minister.
“Some of the people said he was pragmatic, but I believe more that he viewed himself as a Caesar, that everything he did was right, and if he thinks today that he needs to turn to the right, then everyone needs to follow him. And if tomorrow he decides to move to the left, then again everyone needs to follow him – if you are a soldier, a friend, or an admirer. If you don’t do it, you become automatically a traitor,” Katz said.
Summing up Sharon’s life and legacy, Katz described him as “a man with a lot of power and strength, but not always used properly.”
— JNS, JTA, Jewish Press staff