The Magazine

Ariel Sharon's Legacy

From soldier to statesman, by way of most vilified leader in the world.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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THE POST-SHARON ERA began abruptly on January 5, when the 77-year-old prime minister of Israel suffered a massive stroke while visiting his beloved ranch in the northern Negev. By the time Sharon reached the hospital, the bleeding in his brain had already made a return to government for the true Comeback Kid of Israeli politics all but inconceivable. In a bid to assure continuity and stability, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sworn in that evening as interim prime minister, promised that the March 28 elections will take place as scheduled. Sharon, at the head of his new centrist party Kadima, had been expected to prevail decisively.

The Israeli public is saddened, and uncertain about the political fallout, but the newly emergent and electorally powerful Israeli center, which Sharon almost single-handedly brought into being over the last five years, feels particularly bereft. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been deprived of its most loyal ally in the Middle East. And moderate Palestinians have lost a pragmatic Israeli leader with whom, bitter as the pill may have been to swallow, they learned they could work. That Sharon had made himself indispensable to the reasonable hopes for security and peace of Israelis, Americans, and Palestinians testifies to the achievement of this figure who, before the rise of George W. Bush, surely held the title of world's most hated leader.

Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the worldwide loathing of Ariel Sharon. In the European and Arab press it has been common to find Sharon reviled as a mass murderer of Palestinians in 2002 at the Jenin refugee camp; blamed for instigating the second intifada by gratuitously visiting the Temple Mount in September 2000; excoriated as a chief architect and relentless advocate of an imperialist Israeli settlement policy; held directly responsible for the 1982 massacre of Palestinian Arabs by Lebanese Christians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut (for which he was charged in a Belgian court in June 2001 with crimes against humanity); and routinely compared to, and caricatured as, Adolf Hitler.

Nor was hatred of Sharon in short supply in Israel. Before he was elected prime minister in February 2001, no figure on the right aroused greater antipathy among left-of-center Israelis. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, you would have been hard pressed to find more than a handful of members of the intellectual and cultural elite--kibbutzniks, journalists, university professors, lawyers, and doctors--who could mention Sharon's name without having their faces disfigured by disgust.

Sharon's transformation into the indispensable statesman represented an amazing turn of events. A brilliant and always controversial star of the Israeli military, he joined the Haganah in 1942 at age 14, commanded an infantry company in 1948 in the War of Independence, and, as head of the famous "101" commando unit, made his name in the 1950s by leading daring counterterrorism raids into Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. He cemented his reputation in 1967 as a general commanding an armored division in the Six Day War that raced across the Sinai to the Suez Canal, and again in 1973 commanding a division in the Yom Kippur War that crossed the canal and enabled Israeli forces to surround the Egyptian Third Army, leaving only empty road between Sharon and Cairo.

By the mid-1980s, Sharon had become the most divisive figure in Israeli politics and the symbol to the left of the bellicose Jewish nationalism that they despised in the right. The Likud party was in power but not in control of the situation. Having destroyed the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in the South of Lebanon in Operation Peace for the Galilee, Israeli troops became mired in that country. In 1983, the government-appointed Kahan Commission determined that Sharon bore "indirect responsibility" for the Sabra and Shatila massacres, forcing Sharon to resign as minister of defense. Had you told an Israeli at that time--on the right or on the left--that one day the disgraced general would become prime minister and would unite right and left in the country to an unprecedented degree, you would have been laughed out of court. Indeed, you would have been laughed out of court had you made that claim as recently as February 2000, a year before the Israeli electorate rallied around Sharon in record numbers.