No Israeli leader left behind such a paradoxical legacy as did Ariel Sharon. When Israel expands settlements, it continues the path set by Sharon in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when, as minister of agriculture in the first Likud government of Menachem Begin, he built dozens of new West Bank communities. Yet as Israel negotiates an agreement with Palestinians that would inevitably involve uprooting settlements, it is likewise faithful to the legacy of Sharon, the only Israeli leader to dismantle settlements – twice, in Sinai in 1982 and then in Gaza in 2005.
His life, in all its phases, was defined by a single mission: to teach the Jews how to survive in the Middle East. For Mr. Sharon, that often meant fighting on the Middle East’s own harsh terms.
Beginning in the early 1950s, when as a younger officer he established the Israeli army's first commando unit, known as “101,” Ariel Sharon shaped Israel’s strategic doctrine, taking the battle to enemy territory. His daring retaliatory raids against Arab terrorism penetrated into Gaza and Jordan, and became the model for a demoralized Israeli army that hadn’t recovered from its devastating losses in the 1948 War. The army’s self-confidence, culminating in the 1967 Six-Day War, owed much to the spirit of 101.
But Mr. Sharon’s critics noted that his missions tended to leave behind too many bodies – of Arab civilians and also of Israeli soldiers. His advance through the ranks was repeatedly blocked.
Ariel Sharon’s greatest moment as commander occurred during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he led Israeli paratroopers across the Suez Canal and brought the war onto Egyptian territory, surrounding Egypt’s Third Army and turning an initial Israeli defeat into a victory still studied in military academies around the world. Mr. Sharon’s status as one of Israel’s greatest heroes seemed inviolate.
But less than a decade later, as Defense Minister, Mr. Sharon initiated the invasion of Lebanon, misleading the Israeli cabinet about the extent of the war’s reach and in the process shattering the consensus on which Israel’s citizen army depends. No one had infused the Israeli army with greater motivation to fight than had Ariel Sharon, and no one undermined its morale more than Ariel Sharon.
The Lebanon war, which lasted 18 years before the last Israeli soldiers were withdrawn in 2000, became the first war that Israel effectively lost. Mr. Sharon’s own career almost ended in Lebanon: After Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies massacred hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps, an Israeli government commission of inquiry in 1983 found Mr. Sharon guilty of criminal negligence. The Israeli cabinet dismissed him.
The story of Ariel Sharon could have ended then – and many Israelis believed that it had. Yet when the Second Intifada erupted in 2000 and a desperate nation felt unable to cope with overwhelming threat, it turned to Mr. Sharon. Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister in 2001 was not only the story of a political comeback, but of an elder statesman internalizing the failures of his past.
Ariel Sharon’s great challenge as prime minister was to save Israel from its worst wave of terrorism, which brought the war from Israel’s borders into its streets. Reeling from almost daily and at times hourly terror assault, Israelis were becoming a nation of shut-ins, ceding their public space and fearful of congregating with their fellow citizens.
Initially, though, Mr. Sharon confounded expectations. Rather than order an assault on the West Bank cities and villages from where suicide bombers were emerging, he largely held his fire, waiting until he was certain that the public – including the opposition Labour Party – would support another Sharon-led war. As terror atrocities increased, Israelis – even many on the left – grew increasingly frustrated with the newly passive Ariel Sharon and demanded action.
That moment finally came on Passover 2002, when terrorists attacked a seder celebration at a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya. Mr. Sharon mobilized the army. Reservist units were inundated with volunteers who hadn’t been called up but were insisting on joining their friends in battle. Within two years, a united Israel had defeated the Intifada. It was Ariel Sharon’s ultimate victory, and it was won in large part thanks to a combination of restraint and force, a hard-won understanding of the relationship between national unity and power.
Even as Mr. Sharon was consolidating a consensus around the war against terrorism, he was articulating a new political ground. He was the first Israeli politician to understand that the old left-right schism was being replaced by a centrist majority that agreed with the left about the need for a two-state solution and an end to occupation, but agreed with the right about the absence of a credible Palestinian partner for peace.
Mr. Sharon’s operative conclusion was that, if Israel couldn’t continue the occupation indefinitely but also couldn't negotiate a trustworthy peace, its only option was to unilaterally redraw its borders, without waiting for a Palestinian partner. The result was Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza a year after the end of the Intifada. For settlers, Sharon the builder became Sharon the destroyer.
In his various incarnations, Sharon managed to enrage Israelis on the left and the right. Now, though, Israelis across the spectrum mourn a man who devoted his life to defending Israel, and who had the courage to discard his own most cherished policies when those proved ineffective in keeping the Jews safe.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is author of the recently published book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Harper, 2013).