Ariel Sharon was really two men: a brave and inventive army field commander turned politician who was unflappable in war and unscrupulous in peace.
Ariel Sharon inspired soldiers who brought great victories to Israel, ranging from border clashes in the 1950s to a remarkable battlefield recovery in the 1973 war. But he also inspired dismay, distrust, and even disgust from colleagues and rivals who quickly saw that he would do whatever it took to win.
In many ways, Ariel Sharon resembled King David’s favorite general, Joab (Yoav), a daring commander who thought laws and rules were for other people, often using the tactics of warfare even in the civil arena.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, like King David, grew very wary of the war hero he had once admired.
“Have you been weaned off the habit of telling lies,” Ben-Gurion once pointedly asked Sharon, and Sharon’s career was sidelined for many years because he had developed a reputation for insubordination and not always telling the truth.
Sharon’s supporters – and he had them on the Right and the Left at different points in his career, would commonly refer to him as “a bulldozer” running over any problem in his way. In fact, this was a generous description of a man who felt that almost all means were justified to serve all the ends he sought.
“He does not stop at a red light,” wrote veteran journalist Uzi Benziman in his biography of Sharon, written after Sharon had been Defense Minister in the 1980s – a time in which he was accused of deliberately misleading his own cabinet colleagues and the Israeli public about his operational goals in the Lebanon War of 1982.
Some people close to Prime Minister Menachem Begin felt that Sharon led Israel into a wider war than Begin intended in 1982, and that Sharon also got Israel involved in the massacre committed by Maronite militias against scores of Palestinian Arabs at Sabra/Chatilla. But the truth was more complicated.
Prime Minister Begin wanted to strike PLO bases in Lebanon, and he supported Sharon’s use of military initiative. Begin wanted to believe Sharon’s ideas, even though he was always suspicious of Sharon’s motives.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Begin hesitated before naming Sharon as defense minister, because he, like David Ben-Gurion, did not fully trust Sharon.
“I’m afraid he may one day put tanks around my house,” Begin once said when asked about his reluctance to name Sharon to the defense post.
An Israeli judicial commission of inquiry into the massacre in Lebanon found that Sharon bore indirect responsibility for the massacre by not taking proper care to supervise the Maronite militiamen. Sharon was deemed unfit to be defense minister – a verdict that he worked for decades to repeal in the court of public opinion.
The Israeli media attacked Sharon for almost two decades. Some Western media outlets vilified him as a murderer, prompting a lawsuit by Sharon against Time Magazine, which had suggested that he had knowingly allowed the Sabra/Chatilla massacre. Sharon proved his case but could not get a monetary judgment.
For two decades, Sharon was not a real contender for power, although he sometimes vied with other Likud leaders like Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. In one case, he disrupted a Likud convention by grabbing a microphone to “talk-over” Prime Minister Shamir.
But in civilian life, like the battlefield, Sharon had the ability to surprise his rivals, and when he was 73 years old and suffering many physical ailments (hypertension, loss of hearing and sight), Sharon was again thrust into the leadership of the Likud Party after Netanyahu quit as party leader.
Years earlier, one of Sharon’s close friends, journalist Uri Dan, had predicted that the Israeli public would some day turn to Sharon, bringing him back from the political sidelines: “There will be a war, and the people will call on him,” wrote Dan in his book “Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait.”
After a sharp rise in suicide bombings and the ineffectual leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, Sharon won a resounding election victory. Israel was tired of the false promises of the Oslo Accords and the double-dealing of Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which was itself involved in much of the terror.
Writing in his newspaper, Ma’ariv, at the time, Sharon’s friend, Uri Dan concluded that “Arafat’s war made Sharon prime minister.”
It was like reliving history 50 years earlier when a war-torn Israel had turned to the good-looking blonde officer to provide answers to stabilize Israel’s bloody frontiers.
In the 1950s, Sharon was the young colonel who led strong cross-border anti-terror commando raids by soldiers known as “Unit 101,” but the unit allegedly inflicted wide civilian casualties in Qibya in Jordan. It was something Sharon denied, but some of the reports were verified.
Over the years, Sharon developed a reputation for being a man who got a tough job done -such as building roads quickly, but he was not a man who built compromises.
Israeli settlers and the Right adored him during the period when he was building roads and helping West Bank settlements sprout up, sometimes cutting legal corners in order to make this happen. But after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Sharon not only removed settlers from Yamit, but was the man who decided the settlement had to be bulldozed.
In both his personal and public life, power and comfort, not deals and ideology, were what interested Ariel Sharon (Scheinerman). He curried favor and money from businessmen who helped him build his ranch and later helped finance his career – a career that was often marred by charges of bribery.
The young, blonde-haired Colonel Sharon carried on an affair with Lilly, the sister of his first wife, Margalit. He married Lilly shortly after a despondent Margalit was killed in a car crash that many believe was really a suicide. A few years later, Sharon’s first-born son, Gur was killed while handling one of his father’s guns.
Upon leaving the army and entering politics, Sharon was not seen as an ideologue, but rather as a man who could seize an opportunity, who borrowed and literally stole platforms and positions in order to get his way or get into power- or to stay in power.
Sharon asked to look at the election platform of Israel’s liberal party “to get an idea” of how to write a platform for his own Shlomzion (Peace of Zion) Party, but then he stole the entire platform and published it as his own.
When the Liberals red-facedly confronted him over what he had done, Sharon smiled and said, “Don’t you know that everybody in the army says that I’m a bastard?”
Many observers like to believe that Sharon was a Far-Right militarist who moved to the Left over his career, but he was actually part of the Labor Party establishment even when he was in the army, like many other key officers.
When Sharon left the army to form his own one-man party, he offered the number-two spot to Yossi Sarid, one of the most dovish members of Labor. Sarid refused. Later, after his party squeaked into the Knesset, Sharon suggested forging a large party combining Menachem Begin’s Herut Party, the Liberals, and his own party.
Anyone who knew Sharon knew that his motive was not allegiance to Herut or Liberal ideals but rather the need to find a good platform for his career. More than 30 years later, when Sharon shifted from supporting settlements to evicting settlers from Gaza, the motive was not ideological but political survival.
Sharon had discovered long ago that it was easier to get elected from the Right, but surviving in office often demanded governing from the Left, especially when facing charges of bribery, charges that were being brought by a legal establishment in Israel dominated by the Left.
Prime Minister Sharon faced two sets of charges – that he received illegal money from foreign donors for his election campaigns, and that he and his sons got millions in bribes and were promised additional bribes from businessmen in return for favors.
Somewhat similar charges had been made against Prime Minister Ehud Barak but were pushed aside by the Attorney General because Barak was then amidst delicate negotiations with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Sharon clearly thought the same thing might work for him, and it did.
Minor charges were brought against Sharon’s sons, Omri and Gilad, but not the father who lived with them under the same roof.
David Landau, then-editor of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz admitted his paper soft-pedaled negative news on Sharon because they supported his withdrawal policies, and Amnon Abramovitz, the lead commentator of Israel’s Channel Two – the most popular TV outlet in Israel - publicly declared a strategic doctrine to protect Sharon.
Abramovitz said Sharon had to be guarded like an etrog – the sacramental citron that is swathed in velvet to protect it from getting blemishes. Other leading Israeli journalists joined in, like Nahum Barnea, the leading columnist of Yediot Aharonoth, then the number-one selling Israeli newspaper.
Incredibly, Israel’s fourth estate never demanded that Sharon make a case for his dramatic conversion to unilateral withdrawal, and Sharon never said Israeli settlements lost their legal or strategic validity, nor did he even pretend that the PLO was a viable negotiating partner or that Israel could achieve peace with Hamas.
Remarkably, Sharon said the opposite. He said that because there was no viable negotiating partner, he had to try something new: unilaterally withdrawing Israeli forces from Gaza while evicting almost 10,000 Jewish inhabitants from their homes.
So Sharon, the man who had led the military advance that helped turn the tide in war became the man who led the unilateral withdrawal that failed to achieve peace.
For the first time in Israel’s history, Israel’s army was massed not against Arab armies, but to evict Jewish residents. Sharon’s new media allies on the Left even claimed that the Gaza settlers would stage their own suicide attacks and assassinations to stop withdrawal. But the settlers largely withdrew without hurting any soldiers.
Sharon promised new housing for settlers, but his promises were not kept. Settlers – who had given the best agricultural products in Israel to the people of Gaza - watched as marauding Arabs celebrated the Israeli pull-back by burning farms and synagogues. Many settlers suffered broken homes, broken hearts, and bankruptcy while waiting for Israel to make good on its promises to compensate them. Some are still waiting.
Prime Minister Sharon also became the first Israeli prime minister to openly embrace the idea of an independent Palestinian Arab state, but instead of an independent and peace-loving Arab state, Israel inherited a Gaza run by the Hamas terror group.
At the time of the Gaza pull-back in 2005, Prime Minister Sharon faced great opposition in his own Likud Party, but he and his allies (Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni) claimed that he would not initiate a withdrawal without putting the matter to a vote. But there was no national plebiscite, and Sharon ignored his own party’s vote. Sharon lost the vote by two-to one in the Likud convention, and then he took it to the entire Likud Party rank and file where he again lost. Rather, than accept the results of the electoral contest he had himself declared, Sharon set up his own Kadima Party.
Before the next election took place, Sharon suffered a stroke and a heart attack that left him in a coma. Yet, due mostly to Sharon’s charisma, Kadima beat Likud in the election. With time, Kadima, led by Olmert and Livni, ran into corruption scandals and the weight of mishandling border wars in Lebanon and Gaza.
Today, less than eight years later, Sharon’s Kadima Party is nearly finished. It has only two seats in the Knesset, and it will likely disappear.
In recent years, many Israelis – especially those on the far Left – have overlooked some of Sharon’s more questionable actions, because at the end of his career he pursued more dovish policies. Journalists who skewered Sharon for his power grabs for three decades began to forgive him when he used his power against the Right.
These same journalists are now romanticizing the life of Ariel Sharon, showing him as a kindly grandfather holding a sheep on his shoulders – a copy of the campaign poster created for him by his friend, ad-man Reuven Adler.
For people like Sharon biographer Uri Dan and many other Israelis, Sharon was always the man who could turn the tide of war and save Israel, as he had done at the Suez Canal in 1973, cutting across Egyptian lines to land Israeli soldiers on the African side of the Canal, isolating Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
A fair judgment on the life of the soldier turned politician would be that Ariel Sharon was part of some of Israel’s best and worst moments.
A stern judgment would be that Ariel Sharon was a fighter who felt that all was fair in war against enemies on the battlefield and sometimes in the political arena.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar Ilan University, was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and is the Schusterman Visiting Professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14.