The Legacy of Ariel Sharon

Jan 14, 2014

The Legacy of Ariel Sharon

Update from AIJAC

January 14, 2014
Number 01/14 #02

This Update features three pieces reflecting on the legacy of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died over the weekend after eight years in a coma.

We lead with Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert David Pollock. His article’s main point is to explore how Sharon, the great warrior and larger than life figure known for his decisiveness, may have been the only Israeli leader who could carry out the Gaza disengagement of 2005. He draws on some personal recollections of Sharon and his strategic predictions to discuss how the great warrior became a “man of peace.” For this good overall summary of Sharon’s legacy, CLICK HERE. Other important reflections on Sharon’s legacy come from Israeli historian and former diplomat Michael Oren, American statesman, diplomat and former historian Henry Kissinger and noted political scientist Michael Curtis.

Also focussing on Sharon’s ultimate achievements as Prime Minister is prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris. Morris’ approach is to look at what he sees as Sharon’s quest for “greatness” in the mould of Israel founder David Ben Gurion. His conclusion is that as PM, Sharon “showed the promise of political greatness” both in his effective efforts to end the second Intifada and his moves toward unilateral separation from the Palestinians, but that the stroke which placed him in a coma left him unable to achieve all that he sought. For Morris’ full evaluation, CLICK HERE. Other perceptive Israeli perspectives on Sharon’s career, and especially his transformative role as PM, come from Yossi Klein Halevi, Haviv Rettig GurBenjamin Kerstein and Amotz Asa-el.

Finally, a more personal evaluation comes from Elliot Abrams, who, while serving as US Deputy National Security Adviser, worked extensively with Sharon as Israeli PM. He writes about Sharon’s personality, his pose of simplicity covering great cleverness and toughness, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the local terrain, his devotion to the Jewish people, and his scepticism about Palestinian intentions. But his focus is on Sharon’s outsized role in creating the Israel of today, “a tower of strength and stability in a region being torn apart.” For Abrams’ recollections and analysis, CLICK HERE. Other good personal recollections come from former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, longtime political advisor and friend Raanan Gissin, his former military secretary, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant, former Middle East mediator Dennis Ross, and journalist Judith Miller.

Readers may also be interested in:


Ariel Sharon: From Warrior to Man of Peace at Last

David Pollock

PolicyWatch 2190, January 10, 2014

The Israeli leader showed himself capable of making bold policy reversals when he felt the country’s welfare as a democratic Jewish state was at stake.

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, at death’s door today at age eighty-five after eight years in a stroke-induced coma, incarnated many of the contradictory dimensions of his entire country: courageous, and so unavoidably controversial; steadfast in his core convictions, yet flexible, impulsive, and even unpredictable in carrying them out; supremely self-confident, yet always acutely concerned about his country’s security.  

He rose to prominence, as the title of his 1989 autobiography succinctly notes, as a warrior: fighting with great ferocity and distinction in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Suez war, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and then overseeing the 1982 Lebanon war, with a much murkier outcome, as minister of defense. But in his final years in political office as prime minister, even while ruthlessly and effectively striking back at Palestinian terrorists, Sharon demonstrated a very different side. He agreed to limit Israeli settlements in the West Bank, accepted the idea of an independent Palestinian state, and initiated the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The contradiction, or at least irony, was merely a superficial one; for only a man with Sharon’s unrivaled reputation for toughness could have pulled off such switches so successfully. That was when and why President George W. Bush famously, and correctly, called Sharon a “man of peace.” 

Even much earlier, from his first days as a military commander, Sharon was usually determined to go his own way, at times regardless of higher authorities far from the field. The results were decidedly mixed. He first earned attention as the spearhead of Israel’s battle against Palestinian infiltrators, leading the unit that launched the bloody reprisal raid on the West Bank village of Qibya in 1953. He then led a costly and unnecessary commando raid, far into enemy territory, on the Mitla Pass in Sinai during the 1956 war. Yet he also led a brilliant counterattack, again far behind Egyptian lines, across the Suez Canal in the 1973 war. Although little remembered today, Sharon’s division actually advanced to within about sixty miles of Cairo to turn the tide of war and contribute to an honorable ceasefire — and ultimately to Egyptian-Israeli peace.

Yet a decade later on Israel’s northern front, as defense minister during the 1982 war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, Sharon ordered Israeli troops far beyond the initial forty-kilometer objective near the Litani River, all the way to the outskirts of Beirut. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, asked whether Sharon had misled him about the scope of this campaign, reportedly offered this laconic reply: “Well, Arik always tells me about his plans — sometimes before, and sometimes after.” The result was a brutal siege of Lebanon’s capital city, which succeeded in expelling Arafat and the PLO but failed to crush their movement, or to reorder Lebanese politics to Israel’s advantage. Quite the contrary; this Lebanon war left Israel with a new and more dangerous enemy: Hezbollah.

The Lebanon war also left a large stain on Sharon’s reputation, because of the large death toll, culminating in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps around Beirut. All through his career, Sharon was tagged with leading military operations that inflicted civilian casualties, sometimes disproportionately. But this charge was misplaced. It was not Israelis, but Lebanese Phalangist militiamen, who murdered the Palestinians in those camps. An official Israeli commission of inquiry nevertheless found Sharon “indirectly responsible,” and he was forced to resign as defense minister, although he remained in the cabinet a while longer. But Time magazine charged that Sharon had actually “encouraged” the massacre — featuring a cover illustration of a Jewish star dripping with blood — even though Christian guerrillas had actually committed the crime. Against all the odds, Sharon sued the American magazine for libel — and won a symbolic judgment in his favor.

Sharon’s last military venture was much more successful, with favorable political results that continue to shape the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to this very day. A man who began his political life as a protégé of David Ben-Gurion and then rose to influence under Begin finally achieved the pinnacle goal of sweeping Likud to electoral victory shortly after the failure in late 2000 of the second Camp David summit and the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. New prime minister Sharon then conceived and led Operation Defensive Shield, a series of large-scale incursions to root out Palestinian terror cells from West Bank cities at the height of the second intifada, in 2002-2003. Once again there were wildly exaggerated media accounts of Israeli responsibility for massacres, most infamously in Jenin. The accusations were false; and despite all the naysayers inside and outside Israel, the military campaign largely succeeded.

This time Sharon followed up, not with a protracted reoccupation of Palestinian cities, but with the security barrier separating these cities from Israel and its own cities and settlements just to the west. The naysayers were proved wrong yet again; the barrier — sometimes a wall, more often a fence — has worked to stop terrorists. It literally reinforces the verbal calls to stop terrorism uttered by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who replaced Arafat even as the barrier was being built. And the dramatic decline in Palestinian terrorism produced by the barrier, IDF action, and cooperation with Palestinian security services is what has enabled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, currently promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry, to resume, long after Sharon himself was struck down by the stroke that forced him from the political scene.   

On a personal level, I recall the first time I met Ariel Sharon, and the lasting impression it produced of a man who could dream large and act accordingly, triumph over great adversity, and most of all, change course courageously as new circumstances required. In 1985, I sat with Sharon at one of his legendary, lavish private dinners. To my astonishment, he maintained at length that one million or more Jewish olim (immigrants) could quickly be brought to Israel from the Soviet Union — and this was still at the height of the Cold War, before Gorbachev, and long before the collapse of communism and its notorious walls. I mentioned this prediction to a much more senior colleague, who called it fascinating but wildly implausible. And yet, within less than a decade, Sharon’s dream of mass Soviet Jewish immigration came true. 

Even more impressive to me, however, is the epilogue to this little story. At the time he made that rash but prescient prediction, Sharon explicitly intended it to rationalize Israel’s continued hold over the West Bank and Gaza. Soviet Jewish immigration, he meant, would largely “solve” Israel’s “demographic problem” of including so many Arabs within its expanded borders. He was the one, after all, who had driven the creation of Likud in 1973, and invested so heavily in Israeli settlements across the 1967 Green Line.

Yet many years later, when Sharon realized that this part of his dream was unrealistic, he reversed course and decided that for Israel’s own sake, he had to uproot the settlements in Gaza — along with four tiny, isolated West Bank settlements — as he had at Yamit in Sinai for the sake of peace with Egypt in 1982. And for the sake of peace with the Palestinians, or at least separation from them, he had to build a wall dividing Israel from the West Bank, and concentrate further settlement only in the sliver of land around Jerusalem and Israel’s “narrow waist” near the Mediterranean coast — precisely the area that Palestinians and other Arabs have finally agreed could be swapped to Israel as part of a final peace agreement with a Palestinian state.

In order to accomplish this historic reversal, Sharon had to make one last military-style surprise maneuver, but in the political arena. That was his bold decision to break from Likud and form his own party, Kadima, to oversee the planned withdrawal from Gaza and the further concessions to come. Critics of some of these steps, including myself, fault Sharon not for pulling out of Gaza but for doing so unilaterally instead of by agreement with the Palestinian Authority. This arguably gave Hamas an advantage there that it has retained ever since, albeit more precariously now. Perhaps Sharon did not fully realize, back in 2005, that he could try to make a deal with the newly installed and untested Abbas, rather than with the tested-and-proved-untrustworthy Arafat. For his part, Sharon argued that he could not let any Palestinian leader determine whether Israel would remain both Jewish and democratic.

That is an important detail, but a detail nonetheless. The larger point is that Sharon, and almost certainly only Sharon, could get Israel out of Gaza. The Israeli public trusted him to take care of all that, giving Kadima a solid vote of confidence in what turned out to be Sharon’s last electoral campaign. It is a measure of Sharon’s personal political power and credibility that, without him, Kadima has virtually disappeared from the Israeli political map.

And so, to the last, Sharon was decisive — and therefore also divisive. With leadership, of course, comes controversy. Given all these seemingly contradictory twists and turns, what really is Sharon’s legacy? His own career trajectory sums it up well: first be a fearsome warrior, in order to turn later to the work of peace. Because of this legacy, Israel today can contemplate its future more confidently, even as the region all around it implodes, or explodes. Whether that national confidence produces a new paragon of personal courage and political decisiveness in the spirit of Ariel Sharon is still an open question.    

David Pollock is the Kaufman Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of Fikra Forum.


Ariel Sharon: 1928-2014


One of Israel’s legendary military commanders and most influential politicians leaves a legacy that was nearly great

By Benny Morris|

Tablet magazine, January 11, 2014

Some years ago, a cameraman proposed to Ariel Sharon that he photograph him holding a sheep. As the photographer later told it, one of Sharon’s sons, Gilad, who was on hand, advised against it. But Sharon, then about 70, thought about it for a moment and then agreed. The picture became iconic: the politician, flanked by animals, standing on hay in rough brown boots, a sheep slung over his shoulders.

Sharon agreed because he liked the image of farmer-general, à la Cincinnatus, the fifth-century B.C.E. Roman who abandoned the plow to lead the legions in defense of the republic and then returned to his humble plow. (Sharon’s plow, incidentally, was not so humble—a thousand-acre farm, Havat Shikmim, in Israel’s south, practically the only such spread in Israel.) Also because David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister and great leader, had once, famously, been photographed holding a lamb. And, of course, because Sharon was something of a showman. During his now-legendary military exploits, he took care to be photographed from every angle. (Photographs of Gen. Sharon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with a white bandage wound around his head, are also iconic.)

But while Sharon grew up in the agricultural village of Kfar Malal, northeast of Tel Aviv, and loved running Havat Shikmim, which he bought in 1972, sheep-farming was really a pastime, as was Ben-Gurion’s sojourn in rural Sdeh Boker. The passions that consumed Sharon throughout his 85 years were the army, in which he served more or less continuously from 1947 until 1973, and politics, where he starred from 1973 until 2006, when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and fell into a coma while serving as prime minister.

Sharon, perhaps, had hoped to follow Ben Gurion into the ranks of “great”—and he might have made it had illness not cut his career short. To be sure, he manifested military greatness during his years in the Israel Defense Forces. True, in the early 1970s, political, disciplinary, and personal calculations had blocked his appointment as chief of the general staff of the IDF; he was always seen as uncontrollable and something of a maverick and distrusted by the powers that be. But in his decades of service, he clearly demonstrated his mettle as the IDF’s best field commander. From 1953 to 1955, as the leader of Unit 101 and then of Paratroop Battalion 890, Sharon fashioned the ethos and tactics of IDF commando operations. In the 1967 Six Day War, Sharon, by then a divisional commander, brilliantly conquered the Umm Katef-Abu Agheila Egyptian fortification complex in the Sinai. In 1970 and 1971, as OC Southern Command, he successfully uprooted Palestinian guerrillas—terrorists—from the Gaza Strip, a campaign that often involved brutal tactics. (A retired Israeli police chief once told me that he had witnessed Sharon personally executing a captured terrorist in Gaza prison’s courtyard.) In 1973, overcoming some hesitancy among his superiors, Sharon led the game-changing assault across the Suez Canal that forced Egypt, which had launched the Yom Kippur War together with Syria, to beg for a ceasefire.

In politics, too, he had repeatedly exhibited both his maverick streak and his bulldozer credentials. He got things done, whatever the legal and practical impediments, and often he got them done in his own way. But his political legacy remains ambiguous on a number of levels.

A product of the Labor movement, Sharon was a Mapainik at heart: Mapai was the pragmatic socialist party, led by Ben Gurion, that had led the Zionist enterprise to statehood and ruled Israel between 1948 and 1977. But in 1973, Sharon jumped ship and helped bring Menachem Begin’s Likud—then called Gahal—to power. From the late 1970s into the 1990s he was instrumental in expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza—though in 1982, as Begin’s defense minister, he efficiently oversaw Israel’s uprooting of the Sinai settlements as part of the Israeli commitments in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

But 1982 was decisive to Sharon’s political career in another way. He planned and then carried out Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, culminating in the siege of Beirut and eviction of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon—and the massacre, by Lebanese Christian militiamen, of several hundred Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Sharon was held partially responsible for the massacre by an Israeli commission of inquiry and ousted from the defense ministry and was demonized by both the press and the public in the West, as well as by many Israelis.

Nevertheless, through the 1980s and 1990s, Sharon inched his way back into political respectability. By 2001, when he was elected prime minister at the head of the Likud, he had recast his image, emerging as a responsible elder statesman with a security-defense background that most Israelis could trust. Like the ex-Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, with whom Sharon enjoyed very good relations through the decades, here was a man who could—cautiously—advance toward peace but also be depended upon to safeguard Israeli security. His appearance—a smiling, overweight, white-haired teddy bear, a man who was photographed with his sheep—certainly helped. So did the occasional leaks by former aides and secretaries about his abundant sense of humor, warmth, and many personal kindnesses.


From the moment he assumed the premiership, in 2001, Sharon showed the promise of political greatness. Starting in 2002, he orchestrated the Israeli military’s efficient suppression of the Palestinian Second Intifada—a rebellion against Israel’s occupation of the territories, but also a terrorist war against Israel itself, that began in September 2000. And he did this at a relatively low cost in terms of Arab civilian life—most Israelis killed in the Second Intifada were civilians, but most Arabs killed in the Second Intifada were gunmen.

But Sharon then proceeded—somewhat belatedly, left-wingers would say—to veer toward conciliation, apparently under the influence of the Intifada and out of recognition that continued Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip would, inexorably, lead to the emergence of a single state with an Arab majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, an outcome that would necessarily spell an end to the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state.

In the summer of 2005, he orchestrated the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which meant not just the pullout of all troops but also the politically challenging and psychologically traumatic uprooting of a dozen or so Jewish settlements. (Four settlements from the northern West Bank were evacuated besides.) Sharon abruptly lost his Likud base of support—so in November that year, while still prime minister, he set up a new centrist political party, Kadima. Most observers, and his rightist opponents, believed that Sharon intended, in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, to affect a complete separation from the Palestinians by unilaterally withdrawing from the bulk of the West Bank as well.

Sharon grew up with an instinctive, essential distrust of his Arab neighbors in Kfar Malal; after all, in 1921, a few years before Sharon was born, they burned the moshav to the ground. As an adult, Sharon gradually extended this distrust to encompass “the Arabs” in general. Indeed, in 1978, he voted in Cabinet against the evolving Israel-Egypt peace agreement negotiated between Prime Minister Menachem Begin—aided by ex-generals Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizmann—and President Anwar Sadat. (In the decisive vote, in the Knesset in 1979, Sharon voted “aye.”) And in the early 2000s he had had little hope that the Palestinian Arabs under Yasser Arafat, and then Mahmoud Abbas, would ever acquiesce in Israel’s existence or sign a definitive peace treaty with the Jewish state.

So, as part of his “separation” policy, he proceeded to build a security fence between “old” Israel—that is, pre-1967 Israel—and the West Bank. Such a pullback to the fence would have left the Palestinians in possession of about 90 percent of the West Bank—though it also would have left the problem of dozens of Israeli settlements “stranded” inside Palestinian territory. It is unclear how Sharon intended to deal with this or how he thought he would overcome the inevitable resistance of the right wing. In any event, his stroke put paid to this possibility.

When Sharon disappeared from the political arena, in January 2006, both Palestinian and Jewish extremists rejoiced. But there was a real sense of shock, sadness, and loss among most Israelis, who felt—probably correctly—that the only political figure willing and able to extricate—liberate—Israel from the West Bank and thus able to change the course of the country’s history, was gone. His actual passing, after eight years in a coma, is anti-climactic. What comes next, for Israelis and Arabs—and for everyone else, including the Americans—is anyone’s guess.

Benny Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University and the author, most recently, of One State, Two States.


Ariel Sharon: His Eye Was Not Dim

Ariel Sharon often seemed bluff and simple, and he would play that role: in discussions with his kitchen cabinet down at his ranch (they called it the “farm forum”), he would react to some erudite advice by saying: “I am a simple farmer, not a professor. Explain that again, in simple terms so even I can understand it.”

But Sharon was not so simple: he was at different times clever, smart, devious, emotional, unemotional, funny, dry, tough, compromising, unyielding. He was a pariah who transformed himself by the end of his public career into an extremely successful politician and widely admired statesman. Nicknamed the “bulldozer” for both his physical appearance and his military tactics, in politics he was unpredictable and wily. A hero of the right for decades until his decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005, the “father of the settlements” pulled all the settlements out of Gaza and became very briefly the hero of the “peace camp.” This founder of the Likud Party pulled Likud apart and founded a new party called Kadima when his plans required it. At one point he lacked a majority in his own cabinet to pass the Gaza withdrawal plan, so he summoned two unconvinced ministers to his office—to fire them so he would have the majority in a smaller cabinet. They knew what was coming so they refused to meet with him, whereupon he fired them by fax. It was not easy to get around Ariel Sharon once he had made up his mind.

All these contradictions made him a fascinating man to watch and to deal with. Yet he really was, I think, a simple man at root. He saw himself as a Jew whose job it was to protect the Jewish state. In early 2003, President George W. Bush sent deputy national security advisor Steve Hadley and me (I was the senior Mideast official on the NSC) to meet with him, hear him out, and see what he thought of the various peace plans. Was he open to compromises? What he told us, according to my notes of the meeting, was this:

I took risks personally but never took any risks with the security of the State of Israel. I appreciate Arab promises but will take seriously only tangible performance.  For tangible performance I will take tangible steps.  Israel is a tiny small country.  From the Jordan River to Jerusalem is only 17.5 miles.  Before 1967, the Knesset was in range of machine guns south of Jerusalem. From the Green Line to Tel Aviv is 11 miles.  From the sea at Netanya to Tulkarm is 9 miles.  Two-thirds of the Jewish population lives is a narrow strip on the coastal plain.  Between Haifa and Ashdod, which is 80 miles, is two-thirds of the Jewish population, our only international airport, and most of our infrastructure.  All of that is overlooked by the hills of Judea and Samaria.

I am a Jew above all and feel the responsibility to the future of the Jewish people on my shoulders.  After what happened in the past, I will not let the future of the Jewish people depend on anyone, even our closest friends.  Especially when you saw the crowds cheering Saddam who killed even members of his own family and government.  With the deepest friendship and appreciation, we do not choose to be the lamb, but not the lion either.  I will not sacrifice the nation.  I come from a farm family who settled here but I deal with these problems with a cold mind.  I met with the Pope, who said this is Terra Sancta to all, but Terra Promisa for the Jews only. 

So: “a Jew above all” who wanted Jews to be able to make their own decisions and protect themselves in their sovereign state. I often thought he divided the world into two groups, Jews and all the rest, the latter being further divided into real friends like George W. Bush and real enemies—like most of the Arabs. On this he was unsentimental in the extreme. In the summer of 2005 Sharon gave then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a tour of his ranch, after which the Israeli and American teams sat down for a meal.  Sharon sat silently for a while, as he often did, eating huge amounts of food while he listened to the conversation.  Several of the Israelis were criticizing the Palestinians and their leaders harshly: their actions, their political culture, their history.  Eventually Sharon jumped in and said, “I am going to defend the Palestinians.  I have known the Palestinians my whole life.  I was raised with them here.  Of all the Arabs, the Palestinians are the most talented, and they have the best sense of humor.  But there are two problems: their desire to murder and their taste for Jewish blood; and their treacherous ingratitude.”

It was an extraordinary moment, for we were discussing the Gaza withdrawal and Palestinian Authority’s take-over of Gaza for most of the meal.  We were arguing about what exactly the PA security forces were doing, and not doing, and how to force them and/or help them to do more.  But here was a remarkable glimpse of the layers underneath, at what Sharon really thought he was dealing with.  He wanted peace, he was taking enormous political risks for peace, but it was clear—as I thought about his remark over and over—that to him the best that could be hoped for was an armed peace. Whatever dreams others may have had about a new Middle East, Sharon saw his work as defending Jews from people who would murder them, as they had been murdered throughout history. Now Jews had a state and they could and would defend themselves, and he would create new lines and new separations that would, he hoped, make that perpetual task far easier.

As to where those lines should be, Sharon was as expert as anyone in Israel. Flying in a helicopter over the land, he would point out settlements he had planned or encouraged. But he did not need the flight; he knew the map, in detail. If we asked why the fence line had to go this way and that near some Palestinian village, curving instead of straight or straight instead of curving, he would tell us about the hills and the streams, the elevations and the shapes; he loved the land of the land of Israel with passion. He had seen that land as a soldier, worrying about Syrian troops coming down from the north, Jordanians coming from the east, and Egyptians from the south. As prime minister he used to say, when challenged on changing some position he had taken before as a soldier or civilian, that “what you see from here is not what you see from there.” But wherever he sat he always saw things as a soldier, worrying about Israel’s lines of defense—military and political.

His pullout from Gaza won him accolades from many governments, starting with our own and the Europeans. When he went to the UN General Assembly in September 2005 his dance card was full: everyone wanted to see Sharon, the old bull, the warrior-turned-peacemaker, the guy who had done something no other Israeli leader could have managed. That last was true, and Sharon used to tell me, “the left can’t do anything and the right won’t. If I don’t do it, it won’t ever be done. If I am defeated in this, no one will ever try it again.”

But Sharon had a long memory, and he knew that many of those paying tribute in 2005 had once viewed him as an untouchable. Even in America: In 1991, when Sharon had visited the United States as Minister of Housing, not a single U.S. official would meet with him formally. He had taken the blame for the failures of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon—he had been defense minister—and the massacre of Palestinians in two Lebanese refugee camps by Christian militiamen was deemed a stain not only on his leadership but his character.   On that trip, he was not invited to one U.S. Government office. Through the intervention of friends, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp finally agreed to see Sharon in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying. By 2004, the President of the United States was calling him “a man of peace” and Sharon no doubt enjoyed it. The idea that all insults bounced off harmlessly was, I think, entirely false; Sharon liked being liked, and he especially liked it when an American president trusted him, confided in him, and supported him. He enjoyed those days at the UN in New York. They did not go to his head, because he was too old for that, but you could not gain influence with him by blasting him—only by trusting, arguing, talking, trying.  President Bush knew that and it worked, or anyway worked unless Israeli security was in Sharon’s view directly at stake. He fought the intifada his own way, from building the security fence despite American doubts to surrounding Yasser Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah and cutting off his electricity. Bush used to urge Sharon: “Don’t kill Arafat, Ariel; don’t kill him, it’s not smart.” Sharon would nod and grunt—but never promise. After Arafat’s death in 2004, Bush thanked Sharon for restraining himself. Sharon smiled broadly this time and said, “Well, sometimes God helps.”

What were Sharon’s plans? He left no memoir or notes, so we can only speculate. Most of his closest collaborators agree that he wanted to set Israel’s borders before he left office; he wanted to act, not wait for the Palestinians. He did not think Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was a bad guy, but neither did he think Abbas would lead the Palestinians anywhere. This likely meant pulling settlements back to the fence line, securing the major settlement blocs for Israel in perpetuity, keeping the Israel Defense Forces in the Jordan Valley so as not to replicate what had happened in south Lebanon (and would soon happen in Gaza): when the IDF pulled out, terrorists moved in. Then someone could negotiate peace and a final status agreement some day, maybe in a few decades, maybe when the Messiah came. But meanwhile Israel would have secure borders and the key settlement blocs would permanently be part of the country. This is why he thought his exchange of letters with Bush in 2004 was a triumph: for the first time an American president said there was no “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees” and that, as Bush’s letter put it, “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers” would have to be reflected in any peace settlement. There would be no return to what are usually called “1967 borders” but that Bush rightly called the 1949 armistice lines. 

That day, April 14, 2004, was certainly one of Sharon’s happiest: in Washington, with a friendly president, with America on his side and backing his plans, and of course away for a while from Israel’s incessant political battles. Sharon’s comprehension of English was imperfect—Condi Rice once said he was the only person she ever met who spoke English better than he understood it—so he wasn’t immediately certain that the language Bush was using was everything Sharon had been led to expect. His staff later told us that Sharon was only convinced when an inveterate enemy of his in the Israeli press bitterly described the whole thing as a Sharon triumph. If that enemy was sour, Sharon could be sweet.

But this was Ariel Sharon; sweetness might have been nice, security was everything. Three weeks before visiting the White House, on March 22, he authorized the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas. And three days after the White House ceremonies on April 14, he authorized the killing of Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, who had replaced Yassin. There were protests everywhere, but those really did bounce off Sharon; terrorists who killed Jews had to be stopped. This was his job as prime minister.

Bush liked Sharon for many of the same reasons he liked Tony Blair or John Howard in Australia: they were people who got themselves elected not to enjoy life but to accomplish things. They were willing to take political risks to do what they thought right. Sharon as prime minister certainly met that test, though it cost him the support of many of his old friends in Israeli politics—not least among the settlers, who saw him as a traitor to the cause. During the Gaza withdrawal period, Sharon’s security was stepped up. “I’ve spent my life protecting Jews, and now I have to be protected from Jews,” he told me sadly at the time. He fully understood the bitterness many old allies felt, but Sharon the general was making a tough, unsentimental assessment of where Israel’s interests and security lay, and then acting.

He would calculate the balance of forces, and weigh the costs and benefits. And once he made that strategic calculation and decided what to do, it was all a matter of tactics and he would select the best one and press ahead. If you got in the way—whether you were an Egyptian army, Palestinian terrorists, or Israeli political foes—you were, as the nickname suggested, likely to be knocked over. He would drive right through you. What he did not calculate at all was how he looked, how the polls would be affected, whether his image would suffer.

In December 2005, his chief of staff came to Washington and told us Sharon wanted to move forward, to set Israel’s final borders—by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if as Sharon feared the Palestinian leaders would not be willing to sign anything. On December 18, Sharon suffered a small stroke, losing consciousness briefly. He was hospitalized for only two days. When he emerged, President Bush called him. “I will rest for a few days and then get back to work,” he told the president. The president told him to be careful: “We need you healthy; don’t work too hard.  Keep rational hours! Watch what you eat.  I want to see a slimmer Sharon! We need your leadership and your courage to get to peace.” Sharon replied that the two of them can accomplish many things; “I have no doubt I can move forward,” he said, “as long as the terror stops; Israel will not cooperate with terror.” That was the last time they spoke. 

On January 4, 2006, at his ranch, Sharon suffered the massive stroke from which he never recovered. His death was expected, and we in Washington laid plans for the funeral; the president intended to go. I wrote a eulogy for the president to read at the funeral, and kept the final version, worked over by the speechwriters, with me over the next few months so it would be handy when Sharon died:

Ariel Sharon also knew this land as a soldier. He enlisted in the struggle for a Jewish homeland as a boy … fought in all of   Israel ’s wars … and was severely wounded in battle. Over an army career, he became familiar with every inch of the terrain. He knew how high the hills were … how broad the rivers … where enemies would be likely to hide or strike. And knew he that the land he loved needed both swords and plowshares to prosper in an environment always harsh and often hostile. Ariel Sharon was a brilliant general—and led Israel to some of its most celebrated victories.  His experience also taught him the costs of war. In his autobiography, he wrote that “at the age of twenty, most of my friends were dead.”  Because he understood these costs, he believed so deeply in keeping Israel strong.  Because he understood these costs, the man who made his reputation in battle would also leave his mark as a peacemaker.

In his pursuit of peace, Prime Minister Sharon proved as daring and resourceful as he had been as a general and tank commander. As leader of his nation, he made decisions that caused him great personal pain—and that he knew would be unpopular with many who had been his closest supporters. Yet he stood by his decisions, for this warrior did not dream of more victory in battle; he dreamed of peace for the people he led. And when he committed Israel to a new plan for peace, he did so on the same terms that he had insisted on throughout his life – from a position of strength.

Bringing peace to his people was his life’s work, and Ariel Sharon kept at it up to the moment of his stroke. His energy and determination were a source of inspiration to men many years his junior. As the Scriptures say of Moses, his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. 

Sharon left the political scene in his prime, not physically but politically: on top of Israeli politics, a leader whom opponents and rivals feared and whom everyone understood was almost unstoppable. Sharon was born on a moshav in 1928, two decades before the state. The Israel he leaves finally, today, is a tower of strength and stability in a region being torn apart. Many Israelis contributed their lives to that achievement, but very few can match the contribution of Arik Sharon.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national-security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush. He is the author, most recently, of Tested by Zion, published by Cambridge University Press.




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