Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Larger Than Life

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Amotz Asa-El


Every hero becomes a bore, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. The great essayist did not know of Ariel Sharon, who died in January at 85 after one of the stormiest public careers seen anywhere in recent memory. Even his passing - the outcome of an eight-year duel between a legendary warrior and the angel of death - appears to be without precedent among world leaders.

When Sharon's army buddy and political rival Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, a debate emerged over how much of a legacy the slain premier had left - with some arguing that the Oslo Accords he signed had actually been conceived and delivered by others.

There will be no such debate concerning Sharon, a loner who for better or worse did things largely on his own, whether as a soldier, politician or statesman. The things Sharon did clearly add up to a uniquely significant legacy, albeit one that, like its subject, will always be synonymous with controversy.

Sharon's military career was nearly nipped in the bud at age 20 in the Judean foothills west of Jerusalem, when he was severely wounded during one of the bloodiest battles in Israel's War of Independence. That experience inspired the first value he instilled in the IDF during his 26 years in uniform: never abandon the wounded.

However, Sharon's more decisive imprint came as the commander of the IDF's first commando unit during the mid-1950s, when terrorists routinely harassed Israeli farmers in their fields and travellers on the roads.

The IDF was still being built at the time, and tactics to cope with what today would be called low-intensity warfare had yet to be developed. Unit 101, as Sharon's select battalion was called, supplied the solution, as it specialised in shifting the fighting to enemy territory, and gradually created the IDF's ethos of initiative, stratagem, and assault.

By the time the 1956 war with Egypt broke out, Sharon had already risen to colonel and was the commander of the Paratroops Corps. It was here that what his opponents saw as his undisciplined, adventurist side became a public issue.

Ordered to penetrate the Sinai Desert and stop ahead of the Mitla Pass that leads to the Suez Canal, Sharon dropped one battalion from the air at the designated location, had the rest of his division reach it overland, then reported he was sending a reconnaissance detail toward the pass. He then stormed the strategic route without authorisation.

The mountain pass was taken, but 38 paratroopers were ambushed and killed, and Sharon was marked, both in the army and outside it, as an unruly and potentially dangerous man.

When Sharon's finest soldierly hour came 17 years later, it arrived wrapped in the same mixture of daring and disobedience. With the IDF caught off-guard by invading Egyptian and Syrian armies in the south and the north, Sharon crossed the Suez Canal with his mechanised division, took the war into Africa and eventually arrived within an hour's ride of Cairo when a ceasefire was imposed.

As in 1956, there were complaints again that Sharon ignored his superiors' commands at various stages of his assault. However, this time there was no disputing that his leadership and courage had helped turn the entire war's tide, both strategically and psychologically, particularly among ordinary citizens.

As it were, the war caught Sharon in the middle of his passage from the military to politics, an arena in which Sharon would in many ways pick up where he left off, albeit by different means.

Sharon had hardly shed his uniform when he had already helped put together a political organism that to this day dominates Israeli politics - the Likud. Welding together four liberal and nationalist parties, Sharon created the political force that three years later unseated Labor for the first time since Israel's establishment.

Yet Sharon's fit within the right wing of Israeli politics was not as natural as some assume. Born and raised on a farm north of Tel Aviv, he was a farmer at heart, and part of a milieu that generally identified with the Labor movement and its original ethos of pioneering and defence.

Historians will likely debate Sharon's motivation in veering to the political right: Was it because he emerged from the Six Day War convinced Israel could and should retain and settle the territories it had conquered, or was it because Labor did not want him?

Either way, following Likud's 1977 electoral victory, Sharon became Minister of Agriculture, the first of four economic ministries he headed during 15 of his 23 years in Israeli cabinets.

In this less famous aspect of his career Sharon emerged as a conservative pragmatist - and then as Prime Minister in 2003, he appointed his rival Binyamin Netanyahu as Finance Minister and precipitated a slew of free-market reforms that completed Israel's retreat from the socialism of its founding fathers.

Before that, Sharon was Housing Minister when Israel absorbed a sudden influx of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Bloc. The result was overspending and significant bending of government rules, resulting in the construction industry more than quadrupling its output. The ministry ran into a yawning deficit, but the immigrants were fully housed.

Still, Sharon's deepest imprint as a civilian came in his transition from politician to statesman, with his appointment in 1981 as Menachem Begin's Defence Minister.

Sharon's reputation for aggression and adventurism was further fed, in the eyes of his opponents, by his instigation of Lebanon's invasion in 1982 and by the settlement drive he led from 1981 in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon's first lessons in the limitations of power came from the colossal failure of his plan to democratise Lebanon and refashion it as an Israeli ally, and his forced resignation as Defence Minister in 1983 following the massacre committed at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps by a Lebanese Christian militia he had allowed into the camps.

Sharon returned improbably to the business of making Israel's strategic policy 18 years later, in the wake of the Second Intifada, when a special election saw him defeat his predecessor Ehud Barak by a landslide.

What followed saw Sharon's main political creations, the Likud and the settlements, as well as his military legacy of inventing daring solutions to fight inventive enemies, converge to create a political storm, with many of his traditional allies now on the other side. It was a climax which only a life as eventful as Sharon's could precipitate.

Militarily, the challenge Sharon faced when he took the prime minister's seat was the Palestinians' deployment of large-scale suicide bombing as a strategic weapon.

By then a settled septuagenarian and widower, Sharon knew he was fighting what would be his last war and would require broad public support. He therefore brought Labor into his coalition and gave it the defence and foreign-affairs portfolios. It was an early hint that age had produced a different Sharon.

On the battlefield itself, Sharon inspired his generals to produce a victory against terrorism that has since been studied worldwide - as it generated new fighting methods while creating new collaborations between spies, pilots, ground troops, and sophisticated technologies.

In this regard, Sharon's military legacy was preserved by Sharon the prime minister, who now emerged against all odds as one of the most popular leaders in Israel's history. On other fronts, however, his legacy was reversed.

On the territorial front, Sharon the supposed maximalist compromised three times on his commitment to the settlement project:

First, when he authorised, albeit grudgingly, the construction of the anti-terror fence around the West Bank. It was a move that potentially compromised Israel's claim to the land beyond the fence. Then, he abandoned his longstanding opposition to Palestinian statehood, announcing he supported a two-state resolution. And finally, he parted with Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank - a move which Sharon conceived himself and then carried out in the face of fierce opposition within his own party.

On the political front, three decades after he created it, Sharon split the Likud and set up a new centrist party and rival - Kadima.

Where all this was meant to ultimately lead is for now a mystery. Maybe future archival material will shed light over what many suspect was a plan to follow up the Gaza disengagement with a unilateral retreat from much of the West Bank. Sharon was expected to easily win the election that was two months away when he fell into a coma in January 2006.

Then again, just what the Palestinians would have done in such a case and how he would have responded to that will also always remain a matter of speculation.

And so, Sharon's political legacy retains the hallmarks of his military legacy: initiate, manoeuvre, surprise, strike fast - and always keep them guessing.



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