Obituary: Ariel Sharon – A Bulldozer in War and Peace
Sharon was always consistent in his desire to secure Israel’s borders and was often photographed with a map in hand.
Israel’s indomitable lion Ariel Sharon, a bulldozer in war and peace, died on Saturday, eight years after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage that left him in a coma from which he never awoke.
Perhaps the most revered and often reviled of the country’s politicians, perceived alternately as a peacemaker and a warmonger, for decades his actions as a military commander and statesman shaped both Israel’s self-perception and the world’s image of the Jewish nation.
From the time he fought in Latrun as a young soldier to save Jerusalem in 1948 to his orchestration as prime minister of the Gaza pullout in August 2005, Sharon was at the center of the modern nation’s historical moments. And like the country he served for most of his 85 years, his life was marked by controversy, deep loss, harsh defeat and miraculous victory.
Sharon was always consistent in his desire to secure Israel’s borders and was often photographed with a map in hand. During his tenure as the 11th prime minister he was determined to redraw those borders based on his vision of the new strategic and demographic concerns of the 21st century. In this pursuit he was not afraid to tear down his own physical, ideological and political works. His health failed him before the task was finished.
Strikingly, throughout his life, either or by chance or design, much of what Sharon built or cherished was lost, destroyed or tarnished. His ability to sustain loss made him fearless in his public pursuits.
Sharon the soldier had seen his friends die in battle by age 20. The family man buried one son and two wives. The gallant military leader with a white bandage across his wounded forehead played an instrumental role in capturing the Sinai desert, only to return it to Egypt years later as a politician. The spiritual father of the settlement movement, Sharon claimed to know the driver of every crane building homes in the territories. But then, as defense minister, he was charged with the razing of the Yamit settlement in Sinai in 1982 and, as prime minister, he ordered the destruction of the Gaza settlements in 2005.
The leader of the Likud Party he had founded in 1973, Sharon catapulted it in 2003 from 19 to 40 Knesset mandates. But then, in November 2005, he crippled it by bolting to form the centrist Kadima Party, taking a host of prominent politicians from across the spectrum with him.
And as the avuncular elder statesman widely, though by no means universally, perceived to know better than his rivals how to steer Israel forward, he was well on his way to a third term in office when his stroke on January 4, 2006, halted his plans to shepherd the nation into a new dawn.
With his white hair, heavyset build, grandfatherly smile and the reading glasses that occasionally slipped down his nose, his image in his later years as well his conciliatory words belied his reputation as an authoritarian political leader and a brutal military commander.
For all the Israelis he alienated throughout his larger-than-life career, however, he was a man generally well-liked on the most personal levels – friendly, courteous and solicitous.
Sharon never left the spotlight for long after he came to national prominence as the dashing war hero of the 1950s. He was lauded as a master military strategist in the Sixties and Seventies. In the early Eighties as defense minister, he was blamed for the failures and excesses of the Lebanon War as well as the massacre of more than 700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp at the hands of Christian Phalangists. As opposition leader in September 2000, his visit to the Temple Mount was used by the Palestinians as a pretext for the second intifada, and he was often a scapegoat for the continued conflict. Five years later, when he was felled by illness, his sudden forced departure from the political stage was perceived as a crisis for peace.
The sabra son of an immigrant Russian farmer who preferred his own counsel to the communal decisions of his neighbors, as prime minister Sharon turned his own similar preference for solo leadership into a diplomatic platform of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. It was a move that broke a deadlocked period in the conflict. But Sharon’s seemingly swift turnabout from right-wing leader who coined the famous phrase “the fate of Netzarim was the fate of Tel Aviv” to one who evacuated the Gaza settlement of Netzarim, left his dizzied supporters gasping at the betrayal.
Sharon liked to describe himself first and foremost as a Jew and then as a farmer. In addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2005 at the pinnacle of his popularity, he said, “My first love was and remains manual labor: sowing and harvesting, the pasture, the flock and the cattle.”
Circumstances intervened, he said, and instead his life’s path led him “to be a fighter and commander in all Israel’s wars.”
Now, he told world leaders, he had a different purpose. He was reaching out to the Palestinians in “reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict and embark on the path which leads to peace. I view this as my calling and my primary mission for the coming years.”
Hard-line right-wingers who had long believed the prime minister was one of their staunchest advocates felt abandoned by his sudden shift to the Center. His opponents argued that Sharon was simply an opportunist, willing to pay any price and betray any ideal in the pursuit of power. Some said his political shift was designed to deflect corruption allegations, others that he had gone soft.
But Sharon himself had long said that he was not married to one specific path or ideology. “There is no advantage to the person who steadfastly maintains the same position over the years just for the sake of consistency,” he said, as early as 1977.
In his autobiography, Warrior, he referred to himself as a “pragmatic Zionist,” a man of action rather than words. When he believed Jewish settlements created security, he constructed them. Persuaded that a security barrier was needed, he built that too.
Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the US and a long-time adviser, said Sharon was foremost “a pragmatist.” He belonged to a small group of similar-minded soldiers-turned-statesmen such as Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin whose primary consideration was security, rather than ideology, said Shoval. “So you never knew how they would act under certain circumstances.”
Proactive, rather than reactive, in this single-minded pursuit of his goals, Sharon pushed forward with a confident winner-take-all attitude.
Back in 1974, The Jerusalem Post predicted that this style of charging into battle would take him far. “Arik Sharon only knows frontal attacks. That is how he fought the Arabs, that is how he captured the Likud and that is how he intends to storm and capture the State of Israel,” the Post said.
It was not by chance that in the 1970s, solders in his unit were already chanting, “Arik, king of Israel.”
His longtime friend, journalist Uri Dan, said Sharon loved challenges: “When he was told a mission was impossible, that is what he wanted to do.”
Like his biblical hero, Joshua, who blew down the walls of Jericho with a ram’s horn, Sharon bulldozed his way past all military and political obstacles. In the army, he dodged charges that he failed to follow orders and really accurate information to his superiors. In politics he brushed off his image as a has-been politician who attacked both friend and foe. Teflon-style. he survived unscathed allegations of financial corruption.
Former Likud MK Bennie Begin once said acerbically of Sharon that he was as likely to head their party as he was to become a tennis champion. But at the nadir of Sharon’s checkered army career, after he was forced to resign as defense minister in 1983 following Sabra and Shatilla, Dan made a different prediction.
“Those who rejected [Sharon as chief of staff got him in due time as defense minister,” said Dan. “And those who rejected him as defense minister will get him in due course as prime minister.”
Sharon said that his steadfast determination was rooted in his childhood work on a farm.
In an op-ed article for the Post in 1999 Sharon recalled a day he spent with his father at Kfar Malal. “I was working out in the field with my father on an intensely hot day as thirst plagued us and thousands of flies and gnats buzzed around us, getting into our eyes and noses. We, hoes in hand, continued to work. When my father Shmuel, of blessed memory, who was an agronomist, agricultural scientist and also an outstanding farmer, saw I was getting tired, he would stop a minute, point towards the ground we’d covered and say, “Look how much we’ve already done. And with renewed strength, we would continue work.”
It was this mind-set, wrote Sharon, that came to characterize his own indomitable approach – to daily life and to leading Israel.
“This has always been my way: to appreciate what we have already accomplished and to look forward optimistically.”