Ariel Sharon, controversial master of war and politics, dies at 85

Sharon in 1998
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The news of the death of Ariel Sharon did not come as a surprise to many around the world. The former Israeli politician and general had been in a coma since 2006 and his condition was rapidly deteriorating. His death on Jan. 11, however, still elicited the same polarized and controversial reactions to the man who had been a key figure in the Israeli military and political system since the country’s inception in 1948.

Sharon was a controversial figure both within Israel and around the world. Seen by many as a hawk who would spare no human, economic, or political expense to defend Israel, he left behind a confusing legacy as his policy in later years shifted from one of defending Israel strictly through military means, to one of using negotiation and concessions to attempt to build a lasting peace for everybody.

Sharon rose to prominence in the Israeli war for independence in 1948, where he earned a reputation as an effective battalion commander and was nearly killed after being seriously wounded in battle. In 1953, he was appointed by Israeli founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to form and command Unit 101, a special forces unit within the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) whose exclusive role was to operate behind enemy lines.

Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Sharon played a prominent role in the Israeli military and its recurring conflicts with Egypt. During this period, he solidified his reputation as a “soldier’s commander,” fighting alongside his men and often disobeying orders to pull off risky maneuvers. In the 1956 Sinai War with Egypt, this backfired against him when the brigade he was commanding infiltrated too far behind enemy lines and was ambushed by Egyptian forces, suffering many casualties and damaging his reputation in the military.

In what became a common theme throughout his career, Sharon rebounded from the incident and was in command of Israeli troops during the 1967 war with Egypt, leading Israeli forces to a monumental victory. In the early ‘70s as commander of Israeli forces in the entire south of the country, he established the first Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Militarily, Sharon will be most remembered for his actions in the 1973 war with Egypt. He led his soldiers deep behind Egyptian lines, but this time successfully, managing to capture the Suez Canal and bring the war to an end.

Following the 1973 war, Sharon moved from the military to politics. He was a founding member of the Likud party, which today remains a conservative force in Israeli politics. He won his first election to Parliament on the Likud ticket in December of 1973. As a member of Parliament, he was a strong advocate of the growing Israeli settlements. When Likud defeated Labor in general elections in 1977, Sharon joined the cabinet of the new prime minister, Menachem Begin.

Sharon (right) with former U.S. President George W. Bush (center) and Palestinian statesman Mahmoud
Abbas (left) in June 2003
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

When Begin was re-elected in 1981, he was reappointed from agriculture minister to defense minister. It was under his direction that Israeli forces intervened in the brutal civil war unfolding in Lebanon in 1982, seeing an opportunity to drive out Palestinian guerillas, align Israel with Christian revolutionaries led by Bachir Gemayel, and install a new, pro-Israeli government in Lebanon lead by Gemayel.

The invasion of Lebanon went down as one of Sharon’s biggest political blunders. Promising a 48-hour military operation, Israel became bogged down in the violent and unstable situation for months. While it was meeting success in its mission, things began to go downhill when Gemayel was assassinated less than three weeks after being elected president of Lebanon. What followed Gemayel’s assassination was an act of revenge carried out by Phalangist (Lebanese Christian) militias when they entered Palestinian refugee camps in the towns of Sabra and Shatila and massacred hundreds of civilians. To this day, the exact circumstances of this massacre are unclear, but responsibility was ultimately put on the IDF for supposedly standing by and sending the Phalangist militias into the camps, aware of the tensions that existed between the two groups.

The massacre sparked mass protests in Israel. Many Israelis were already angry that the war had been going on for months after being promised a 48-hour operation. The events of Sabra and Shatila only gave the anti-war Israelis more leverage, and the majority of the prominent Israeli left was almost entirely opposed to the war at this point.

The Israeli government investigated the incident and concluded that while Sharon was not directly responsible, it was negligent of him to send angry Christian militias into Palestinian refugee camps. The conclusion of the investigation suggested Sharon resign from the office of defense minister. In February of 1983, the Israeli cabinet voted to remove him from his position by a vote of 16-1. Sharon was the only member who voted in his favor.

For the rest of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sharon remained active in politics, but mostly behind the scenes.  Following Benjamin Netanyahu’s election to prime minister in 1996, he became a central figure in the Israel-Arab peace process. He was not very interested in dialogue, however, and refused to shake Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s hand, claiming that he would not shake the hand of a man he had spent years trying to kill.

In 2001, Sharon was elected prime minister, and his policy on Palestine began to shift. He began to publicly support a two-state solution and started withdrawing settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The settlers he once championed began to feel betrayed and no longer supported him. During this period Sharon also abandoned the Likud party and founded the moderate Kadima party.

Sharon was still prime minister in early 2006 when he was struck ill. He suffered two strokes and ended up in a coma until his death this month. While he is still mostly remembered for his hawkish ways and his unfortunate blunder at Sabra and Shatila, Sharon’s final years make for a conflicting legacy somewhere between hawk and diplomat that was left incomplete by his untimely incapacitation.

Personal convictions aside, Sharon is viewed by all as one of the most famous and most effective politicians and generals of the 20th century. As a general, he was largely responsible for Israel’s independence, early expansion, and military victories when the odds seemed stacked against it. As a politician, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and worked his way back to power and credibility after several career-threatening incidents that would have easily been the bane of lesser politicians. Upon his election as prime minster, he put his personal beliefs aside and worked for what he felt was best for his people: a permanent peace with Palestine and its supporters.