Morton Klein, the longtime president of the Zionist Organization of America, tells of a banquet sponsored by a major Jewish organization that he attended several years ago. In a room filled with crowded tables of Jewish dignitaries from this country and Israel, he spotted a lone figure.
“He was in a corner by himself. No one was paying attention to him,” Klein says. The banquet took place in the period between Sharon’s fall from grace after an Israeli commission had found that he shared responsibility for the slaughter of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Christian soldiers at two refugee camps in southern Lebanon in 1982, and his eventual return to political power and his election as prime minister.
“People were ignoring him. Everyone dismissed him as a serious political entity,” Klein says. “Everyone was saying that he’s finished.” Klein and his wife sat with Sharon that night.
Sharon, who died on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 85, eight years after he suffered a serious stroke that left him in a permanent vegetative state, was a hard man to ignore.
Israeli journalist Tom Segev called him “a mythological figure, larger than life.”
One of the last remaining leaders who played a role in every significant Israeli political and military event since the State’s founding days, he was, by his own admission, a stubborn, often-uncompromising and sometimes-gruff/sometimes-sensitive figure who was at times a hero of the Right, a target of the Left, then, after he orchestrated the 2005 withdrawal of Jewish residents of the Gaza Strip, a target of the Right.
During his career he served in several cabinet posts: Agriculture Trade and Industry, Housing Construction, National Infrastructure, Defense, Foreign Minister. In each position he worked to establish a Jewish presence in the territories captured by Israel in 1967, earning the reputation as the settlers’ patron.
“Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (West Bank) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don’t grab will go to them (the Palestinians),” he once explained.
In his personal life he suffered a series of challenges; both wives – sisters – died, one in a traffic accident, the other of cancer; a young son died in a shooting accident; his family home in 1999 burned to the ground.
He was “a danger to democracy,” said Golda Meir. “Unbalanced, adventurous, dangerous, undisciplined,” said Chief-of-Staff Mordechai Gur.
Sharon was, even his critics would concede, a fearless fighter both in the Army and in politics, a proven military tactician and strategist, a loyal soldier who frequently ignored commanders’ orders, a law student who used his legal training in a political setting, a calculating political leader who changed party allegiance several times and helped form several Israel parties, a farmer who brought his love of the land to his work as a diplomat, and an untiring defender of what he saw as his nation’s interests.
He consistently invited controversy, during his military and political life, from what many Israelis considered reckless behavior as a soldier, then an officer, in Israel’s wars against neighboring enemy Arab lands; to his conduct of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which he was accused of deceiving Prime Minister Menachem Begin and earned the title “Butcher of Beirut”; to his role, as Defense Minister, in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres that apparently ended his political career and led to criticism by Time magazine that led to an out-of-court settlement; to his 2000 visit to the Temple Mount area of Jerusalem’s Old City that the Palestinians used as a pretext for the first intifada uprising against Israel; to his Phoenix-like rise from his own ashes and the political about-face he did when he accepted the creation of a Palestinian state and order the evacuation of Gaza.
In a minor political incident, he drew criticism, while serving as Prime Minister, for complimenting US Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice’s legs.
Sharon earned, his critics would say, the title of “bulldozer.”
“When I receive an order,” he would say of his days in the Army and in political leadership, “I treat it according to three values: the first, and most important, is the good of the State … The second value is my obligation to my subordinates, and the third value is my obligation to my superiors. I wouldn’t change the priority of these three values in any way.”
“As a Jew, it is my historic responsibility to defend the Jewish people,” he said of his legacy. “I feel this responsibility for the survival of the Jewish people. We’re not going to accept any decision by anybody else about security of the State of Israel. It is our role and our only role.”
“He was truly the ultimate patriot,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He had a real love for the country and the Jewish people.”
“He was a general who understood what military conquests meant, and also believed in peace,” said Seymour Reich, a longtime American Jewish leader.
“No matter what happens, he needs to be at the center of it,” Zeev Chafets, an American-born Israeli writer who knew Sharon for three decades, wrote in the New York Daily News. “He doesn’t care so much about the shape of things. He wants to be shaping things.”
“My father was born into a different culture, pragmatic Zionism, which believed in simply getting things done: establishing another village, laying another water pipe, planting another orchard, tilling another furrow of earth,” Gilad Sharon wrote in Tablet in 2011
“My father,” while serving as minister of housing and construction, “would receive constant updates, in real time, about … the number of sites under construction, and the number of apartments ready for habitation,” Gilad Sharon wrote in “Sharon: The Life of a Leader” (Harper), a 2011 biography. “He spent days and nights on the road, visiting construction sites all over the country, meeting mayors, contractors, Israeli Lands Administration workers, treasury employees, bankers, and army officers, whose bases were even used to house some of the [recent Soviet] immigrants.”
Born Ariel Scheinermann in Kfar Malal, a moshav in central Israel, in pre-statehood Palestine, the son of immigrants parents, he preferred to be known by his diminutive, Arik.
He was a man of enormous physical appetites, his weight – at 5-7 – estimated to be at least 250 pounds. “There is no bullet-proof vest in my size,” he would say.
Sharon, who later Hebreacized his last name, joined the Haganah in 1942 at 14. In
the 1948 War of Independence he served as a paratrooper and officer. In the months before the war, he directed hit-and-run attacks of Arab forces near his kibbutz. “We had become skilled at finding our way in the darkest nights and gradually we built up the strength and endurance these kind of operations required.” After the May, 1948 Declaration of Independence, his platoon defended against an Iraqi attack at Kalkiya.
In the subsequent years he was a founder of the famed Unit 101, which executed guerilla, reprisal operations on Palestinians who had conducted terrorist attacks on Israelis. The Unit 101 raids, often across the border in Jordan, included a 1953 attack on Qibya, a West Bank village, where 69 Palestinian civilians, some of them children, were killed.
Though Sharon projected an image of indifference to attacks on his character, they stung him deeply, Morton Klein says. “He used to tell me all the time that he could not stand ‘when people call me a terrorist, a warmonger. I do what is necessary to defend ourselves.’”
In the 1956 Sinai Campaign Sharon commanded a paratroopers brigade and was responsible for taking ground east of the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Desert, ordering attacks that had not been sanctioned by Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, as a Major General, he commanded an infantry brigade, in charge of an armored division that made a significant breakthrough against the Egyptian Army.
Out of the army at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he was called back into active service in his assigned armor division, crossing the Suez Canal and playing a major role in encircling Egypt’s Third Army and hastening the Egyptian defeat.
An aide had asked Sharon at the start of the war, “How are we going to get out of this?” In other words, how would Israel fare against larger armies. “We will cross the Suez Canal and the war will end over there,” Sharon answered.
Though initially affiliated with the Mapai party, one of the forerunners of the Labor Coalition, he steered the 1973 creation of the Likud party through a merger of other, smaller parties. Later he formed the Shlomzion party, which won two Knesset seats in 1977, and Kadima, a centrist Party under whose banner he won reelection in 2005.
In 1982, Sharon was Defense Minister in Menachem Begin’s government. On September 16-18 members of the Phalange, Lebanese Maronite Christian militias, slaughtered an estimated 800-3,500 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon. The Phalange fighters had entered the camps to clear out PLO terrorists, while Israeli soldiers surrounded the camps to block the exits.
While no Israeli soldiers took part in the killings, an Israeli commission found the Israeli Army indirectly responsible for the massacre. The Kahan Commission declared that the Phalange intents were known to Israel and approved by Sharon, who bore personal responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.”
The commission called for Sharon’s removal from office.
Though Sharon at first refused to resign, and Begin refused to fire him, Sharon in time did step down, while remaining in the cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio.
After Time published an article the next year that accused Sharon of direct responsibility for the refugee camp killings, he sued the magazine in this country and Israel for libel. An American jury decided that then Time story included false allegations, but the magazine had not acted with “actual malice” and was not guilty of libel.
In 1986 he and Time announced an out-of-court settlement in the Israeli case for a figure The New York Times describe as “substantial.”
Unbowed, still in the government, his reputation and popularity growing among many Israelis, Sharon after 1982 he served in a series of cabinet posts, culminating with the foreign ministry in 1998-99. In 2001 he was elected Prime Minister.
“I’ve seen everything. I’ve met the kings, the queens, the presidents,” he said while serving as Prime Minister. “I’ve been around the world. I have one thins that I would like to do: to try to reach peace.”
Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Presidents Conference, remembers visiting Sharon in Jerusalem in the 1980s. Reich’s delegation asked about Sharon’s settlements policy. “With a curlish smile on his face, he would unroll maps of the ‘occupied territories’ … and point to areas where settlements would be built. He would say, ‘This is where we’re going to be. This is our land.’”
Did all the settlements get established where Sharon had pointed?
“I would assume so,” Reich says.
In 2003 Sharon endorsed the Road Map for Peace put forth by the U.S., Russia and the European Union, announcing his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Sharon told his friend and biographer Uri Dan that he admired the attachment of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the land of Egypt – including the Sinai, which Israel eventually returned. “I remember, during the very tough negotiations … Sadat stuffing his pipe and saying slowly, ‘The land of Egypt is sacred,’ and I remember the jealousy that I felt,” Sharon is quoted as saying in “Ariel Sharon: An intimate portrait” (Palgrave Macmillan), Dan’s 2006 biography.
A pragmatist more than a zealot, Sharon in the end played a major role in removing Jews from the settlements he had supported – first in the Sinai in 1982, later in Gaza in 2005.
The Gaza “disengagement” was opposed by many right wing Israelis on security, military and religious grounds. Some 10,000 Jewish residents of Gaza were forced to leave their homes, some dragged away by soldiers.
“The sight of soldiers gathering up children’s toys and helping to pack them particularly touched me,” Sharon told Uri Dan. “I shared their pain and their heartbreak.”
The Gaza disengagement was “a tragic mistake,” Klein says; it led to “Hamas taking over Gaza and turning thousands of missiles at Israel.”
Half of the displaced Gaza residents still live in “temporary housing,” Klein says.
“What is the benefit?” of the Gaza evacuation, Klein says he once asked Sharon. Klein says the then-Prime Minister “paused for a minute,” then launched into a long praise of the Jews of Gaza. Sharon, Klein says, did not explain his action’s benefit.
“Then he finally said, ‘I have to do something. The world is requiring that I do something” to show Israel’s sincerity in the peace process. “The easiest thing for me to do is remove the Jews from Gaza.”
History will remember Sharon as “a great military strategist, a war hero and Jewish patriot – he should still be respected,” Klein says. Gaza “inalterably changed his legacy forever.”
Related Recommended Reading
Get The Jewish Week Newsletter
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.