He fought in each of Israel’s conflicts, knowing any war that the Jewish nation lost would be its last.
In death, Ariel Sharon, general, strategist, prime minister and diplomat, leaves a legacy like nobody else. Because of him, Israel has survived – the mission to which he devoted his life.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaking to Isreal’s Knesset parliament (Israeli government photo)
He was a masterful military commander before he retired and turned politician. After his assault of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula during in the Six-Day War, then his encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army in the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli public nicknamed him “The Lion of Israel,” a Hebrew pun on his first name.
He was born to Russian refugees on February 26, 1928, in a farming kibbutz in what was the British Mandate of Palestine. His parents were agronomist Shmuel Scheinerman and medical student Vera Schneirov Scheinerman, who met while studying in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. The couple fled to Palestine when the Russian Communist government intensified its persecution of Jews.
His final job was Israel’s 11th Prime Minister – until 2006 when he lapsed into a coma after a series of strokes. He never regained consciousness and eight years later passed away quietly.
As a paratrooper, he participated prominently in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and was a key military leader during the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition, and the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. As Minister of Defense, he directed the 1982 Lebanon War.
“To Israelis who remember his bravery, starting with the War for Independence in 1948, he was a paratrooper known as ‘the Bulldozer,’" eulogized the editors of the Washington Times newspaper. “Others recall his dash across the Suez to encircle two Egyptian armies when the Yom Kippur War was hanging in the balance and regard him as the man who saved his country. Some cannot forgive him for failing to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps by Christian Phalangists. They call him ‘the butcher of Beirut.’”
Sharon presiding over the Knesset (Israeli government photo)
“There’s probably no issue in the world more contentious, or more heavily litigated, than the Israel-Palestine conflict,” noted Max Fischer in the Washington Post. “That has all come out with the death this weekend of Ariel Sharon, whose long career in Israeli politics included five years as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006. Sharon’s legacy, like his country and the conflict it is still engaged in, is treated with something much more complicated than mere controversy. The debate around his life and actions has been, and will long continue.”
“War hero, statesman, strategist and pragmatist, Ariel Sharon died just when the perpetually stalled Middle East Peace ‘process’ could use his brand of decisiveness,” wrote the Washington Times editorial board. “Eulogists have scoured Sharon’s remarkable achievements and the matching contradictions, and some observe that his life was the stuff of Greek tragedy.
“He fought for his country — in all of Israel’s wars — and tried to find the formula for a lasting peace in the region. He was capable of changing course, even late in life. As the minister of agriculture, he encouraged Israelis to establish settlements in what they regarded as their biblical ancestral land in the West Bank, but later pushed for the unilateral withdrawal of 25 settlements in the Gaza Strip (and a few in
the West Bank) in 2005, when he concluded there was no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate peace.
During Knesset debate, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confers with his brother Omri (Israeli government photo)
“He was tough, and he was stubborn. As Israel’s foreign minister, he had refused to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand when they met at Wye Plantation in Maryland in 1998. He later said that he had spent years trying to kill Arafat and was not about to shake his hand.”
“One of the most important lessons that Sharon applied to the battlefield and to politics was that Israel had to seize the initiative, not simply react to events,” writes Robert M. Danin “He, more than any, appreciated the country’s basic security dilemma: while possessing a strong and highly motivated army, Israel is dwarfed in size and numbers by an inhospitable region. For him, taking the initiative was the enduring legacy of Jewish history, of his military experience, and of his political success.”
He was often blamed for the tragedies that occur in war. “He had taken the blame for the failures of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon – he had been defense minister – and the massacre of Palestinians in two Lebanese refugee camps by Christian militiamen,” wrote Elliott Abrams in Commentary magazine.
Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip was brilliant, said Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass in a 2006 interview “The genius, if you will, of unilateral disengagement from Gaza was that it offered you an approach to a peace process, but didn’t require two partners, which was the traditional approach. My hunch is that had Sharon remained viable politically and physically, what we would have seen was not a return to a traditional peace process, but instead a period of successive unilateral disengagements up to a certain point.
“And then my guess is that Sharon would have said, ‘Ok. We will go this far unilaterally. We are only prepared to take the final steps, though, of disengagement and withdrawal if we have a Palestinian partner.’”
"He was the 'new Jew' after the Holocaust, a strong man who stood up to those who wanted to destroy the likes of him, and his country," eulogized columnist Suzanne Fields. "He had his faults, but weakness wasn’t one of them. His story was that of his country, of perseverance and intrepidity in the face of his enemy. When he surprised the world in 2005 by withdrawing settlers and troops in Gaza, he was compared with President Nixon going to China. He had a plan to create a strong state that would survive by compromising."
Sharon’s primary achievement, according to Max Boot in a 2006 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, was to force both the left- and the right-wingers of Israeli politics to see reality: “The Israeli left for years had dreamed of reaching an accord to live in peace with the Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat’s cynical resort to violence in 2000 – even though he was offered sovereignty over almost the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip – showed that no meaningful negotiations were possible when so many Palestinians had not truly accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
“The right, for its part, had dreamed of settling Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to make those areas forever part of Greater Israel. But the Palestinians’ higher birth rate meant that before long they would become the majority, forcing Israel to jettison either its Jewish identity or its democracy.”
“I wondered how Sharon felt about the changed opinion of him in much of the world,” wrote Israeli journalist Ari Shavit some years ago. “The Arab world, and many on the left elsewhere, would never forgive him his early career. But now he was widely respected, even revered, by people who had written him off as the cruel, militaristic ogre of the Zionist occupation.
Sharon presiding over the Israeli cabinet (Israeli government photo)
“This doesn’t intoxicate me,” Sharon told Shavit. “I’ve seen them regard me one way and I’ve seen them regard me another way. And I know that it can be the one way again and it can be the other way again. It’s like a huge wheel. Do I feel elation when they admire me in the world? No. Above all, I’m a Jew. And I realize how they came to like me. If the Jews were to disappear, they’d also be happy.”
“The great question of our day,” he wrote in The Warrior, his 1989 autobiography, “is whether we, the Jewish people of Israel, can find within us the will to survive as a nation.”
How did he see his own legacy?
“Today,” he told Shavit, “the Jews are in less danger because Israel is strong.”