Ariel Sharon: A man of such controversial military and public career. A man who had as many admirers as opponents. A public figure that rose to the top and fell to the bottom several times before finally becoming a beloved prime minister, just to become a controversial figure again. A controversial leader on a scale only Ariel Sharon was capable of. At the peak of his popularity he found a way to alienate a large portion of the Israeli population, his most dedicated supporters, by forcing Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip, and from settlements in Samaria.
His exit from public life was like no other Israeli prime minister before or after him: He did not resign, he did not die, he did not lose an election, and he was not voted out of office by his peers. One day he was a functioning, an all-powerful prime minister. Then, on the following day, he had a massive stroke. He was rushed to a hospital never to come out. He was in a vegetated state for eight years before he died.
Sharon (born February 26, 1928; died January 11, 2014) was born at Kfar Malal in Pre-State Israel. He joined the Haganah at the age of 14 in 1942 and during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, he commanded an infantry company in the Alexandroni Brigade. In 1953, Sharon created and ran an elite military group known as Unit 101. This special branch of the Israel Defense Forces was charged with launching retaliatory strikes against Palestinian terrorists. But it was soon dissolved after the unit staged an attack that resulted in the death of innocent women and children. During the Arab-Israeli War of 1956, a conflict over the Suez Canal, Sharon commanded a brigade of paratroopers in Sinai. He reportedly got into trouble with his superiors for disregarding orders. The ambitious military leader engaged the Egyptians in battle at the Mitla Pass, resulting in causalities on both sides. Sharon returned to furthering his education after this conflict, eventually earning a law degree from Tel Aviv University. Over the years, Sharon rose within the ranks, becoming a major general by the time of the Six-Day War, in 1967. As the chief of southern command, he handled the Suez Canal area during the War of Attrition in 1969. Sharon also led the operation to squash the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Gaza Strip in 1971.
Ariel Sharon was always a controversial military commander, however, in 1973 during the Yom Kippur war, Ariel Sharon truly did some amazing things that no one can take away from him. Many books were written about that war and not all of them are flattering to Sharon. However, given the fact that he had many political opponents at the time, it is not unrealistic to consider that some of the criticism against him was politically motivated. After all just before the war begun, Sharon was denied the position of the military chief of staff and was forced to resign from the army. In return, he was the main driver to unite the right-wing parties to form the Likud party that became the major opposition to the government.
When the Yom Kippur war erupted, Sharon was called back to serve as a division commander in the Sinai desert, to stop the advancement of the Egyptian army and help saving Israel from a total destruction. Under those circumstances, the ruling party couldn’t afford to keep one of its most experienced generals on the sideline and despite political rivalries it had to enlist his help. Yet, they all knew that there will be losers and winners after the war and non of the people in power wanted to see Sharon’s popularity growing.
The first days of the war were a complete chaos and during those chaotic days Sharon proved himself . He was a contrast to other Israeli generals who were proven to be incompetent during the war. Ariel Sharon provided leadership and stability that eventually turned a bad situation around in the Sinai desert from an almost defeat to a total victory. It is still debated today whether or not Sharon deserves the credit for crossing the Suez canal and driving the Egyptian army back almost all the way to Cairo. However, the fact remains that units under his commands were the first to cross the Suez canal.
From left to right: Daya, Elazar, Bar-Lev, and Sharon in a discussion during the war
I met Ariel Sharon only once, well not exactly meeting him, it was more like running into him; I was an infantry soldier at the time, doing my obligatory military service. On that occasion I was hitchhiking my way home for the weekend. I entered a busy restaurant near Natanya on the main expressway between Tel Aviv and Haifa to get a cold drink and there he was; speaking on the public phone at the restaurant’s entrance. I almost bumped into him. These were the days before cell phones, when the only way to call from the road was to use a public phone. During that time he was in-between cabinet posts. He didn’t have any bodyguard or entourage with him but it didn’t matter to me; he was still a high-ranking government official with close ties to my military chain of command. Coming back from a field exercise, my appearance wasn’t that great. It was during a period when the Israeli army was cracking down on soldiers to be more presentable in public. Given that, as soon as I saw Ariel Sharon I did an about-face and got out of the restaurant. Looking back, I don’t think that he would have cared but as a young soldier I didn’t put it to the test. Shortly after that, he became the defense minister. Few years later, in 1982 he convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin to attack PLO bases in Lebanon and I found myself on a search and destroy mission deep in Lebanon.
When the war was over Sharon was fired from his position as a defense minister for being ultimately responsible for the war and the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians Lebanese in the hands of the Christians Lebanese militia. The war inquiry panel determined that Sharon should have known better when the Israeli army allowed the Christian Militia to enter the Palestinian refugee camp. Under a mounting pressure from the Israeli public against the war, Menachem Begin resigned from his position as prime minister and lived the rest of his life in a solitary confinement. Begin blamed Sharon for misleading him about the war’s objectives and for dragging him into a war that couldn’t be won. For most people this would have been a career ending blow, but not for Ariel Sharon; he returned few years later to public life as a prime minister.
As a prime minister Sharon surprised everyone. He surprised both his supporters and opponents. He did that three times while in office. The first surprise was that he was a very good prime minister for Israel. Given his previous political views and actions, he was expected to be a conservative right-wing prime minster. However, his long and difficult journey to this ultimate position prepared him very well and he governed as a centrist. Very quickly he became very popular and very powerful prime minister.
The second time that he surprised everyone was when he uprooted settlers from their homes and returned parts of the Gaza strip and Samaria to the Palestinians. Considering Ariel Sharon’s relentless efforts to settle these areas, and his strong support of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria throughout his political career, no one anticipated that he would do something like that, especially not the settlers themselves who saw Ariel Sharon as one of them.
His last surprise as a prime minister was when right-wing radicals in his own party opposed his leadership in a way that impaired his ability to govern. He left the party that he helped creating, and while still a prime minister, he ran in the next election as the leader of a new party that he formed almost overnight. His popularity was so high that he easily won the election again.
His onetime strongest supporters never forgave him for destroying their houses and dreams. Many of them believe that his condition in his last eight years was a punishment for uprooting them from their homes.
Many believe that the period of great Israeli leaders ended with the murder of Itzhak Rabin and the stroke of Ariel Sharon.
Ariel Sharon in the White House with President Bush
Ariel Sharon with Moshe Dayan during the 1973 Yom Kippur war in Egypt.
Israelis forced out of their houses in the Gaza Strip
An Israeli woman taken out of her house in the Gaza Strip by IDF soldiers