Ariel Sharon was a charismatic and controversial figure. Supremely confident, often challenging superiors and colleagues, he was a man who would not be deterred and was committed to ensuring the safety of the Jewish people and the building of a “Greater Israel,” a stronger Israel. A former parachute officer, brigade commander, IDF chief of staff, many times minister and latterly prime minister, he was a brilliant, if ruthless, strategist.
He was born into a family of stubbornly independent pioneer farmers, members of the co-operative village, Kfar Mahal. His Russian-born parents lived apart from the community as a whole. They were staunch individualists – reputed to be arrogant – and capitalists in a community of socialists; individualists who rejected the communal spirit of their village. This made its mark.
Mr. Sharon’s memory was also branded by years of Arab/Jewish enmity. In 1927, the year before his birth, Kfar Mahal was destroyed by Palestinian guerrillas, only to be rebuilt and destroyed a second time two years later. The community lived in constant fear, and this apprehension had a deep effect on the young man.
At the battle of Latrun in 1948, he was shot in the stomach and thigh. He emerged, but with 31 of his 35 men dead or wounded. In 1952, he formed a special commando squad designed for unconventional retaliatory operations in enemy territory. Most controversially, he conducted a retaliatory raid into the Palestinian village of Qyiba – 69 villagers were killed. In the 1956 war with Egypt, he was censured for what some deemed the needless loss of 30 soldiers. But others were quick to defend him. “The truth is,” Moshe Dayan, then IDF chief of staff, wrote, “that I regard the problem as grave when a unit fails to fulfill its battle task, not when does more than is demanded of it.”
As a major-general commanding an armored division in the 1967 war, he revealed a talent for orchestrating huge, set-piece battles. By 1969, he was chief of southern command, although his relationship with the cabinet of prime minister Golda Meir was uneasy. She was tentative about the occupied territories so, without waiting, he began the settlement exercise. People were moved, territories fenced-in and habitations built. Ms. Meir’s misgivings led to his departure from the IDF. Called back to command a reserve division in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, it was Mr. Sharon who planned and executed the audacious Israeli strike across the Suez Canal.
After the war the general went back to civilian life, but politics was never far from his mind. As minister in the Likud government of Menachem Begin, he continued to spearhead the settlement enterprise. In 1981, he formulated a grand design to ensure Israel’s security by crushing the PLO in Lebanon. The IDF advanced to Beirut, against the direction of prime minister Begin, trapping some 15,000 guerillas. Mr. Sharon crushed the PLO but was found complicit by an Israeli commission of inquiry with respect to the Sabra and Shatilla massacres conducted against Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias.
Mr. Sharon was thereafter considered political deadwood, but with characteristic determination he fought his way back, serving variously as minister of industry, trade, housing, construction, infrastructure and defense, always driving the settlement enterprise. Following the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999, he succeeded a bitter Benjamin Netanyahu as Likud leader. His visit in September, 2000, to the Temple Mount, also Islam’s third-holiest site, was widely viewed as inflammatory. Many believe that he thereby sparked the second Intifada. But that visit may have saved him politically, forcing Mr. Netanyahu to back off from his attempt to grab back the Likud leadership. Mr. Sharon, his tough-guy image reinforced, became prime minister in February, 2001.
As prime minister, his pragmatism led him to believe Israel could not continue to rule over four million Palestinians. This seeming about face led to building the West Bank barrier and pulling out of Gaza in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish state. In doing so, he remained true to his roots – the defense of the Jewish people and the preservation of their homeland.
I met Ariel Sharon many times during my tours of duty in Israel but I understood him best when I heard him speak at one Holocaust Memorial day. He lauded Holocaust education but said too much emphasis had been placed on Jewish passivity and not enough on their resistance during that tragic period in Europe. The Allies had furthermore taken no action whatever against the death camps. Israelis must be self-reliant he said. They could count on no one else to ensure their wellbeing. Mr. Sharon’s lasting conviction was that in the Middle East jungle, Israelis must do what they have to in order to survive and at whatever cost.
Michael Bell is adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor, and also teaches at Carleton University. He has served as Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, to Egypt and to Israel.
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