The Lion of Israel – Ariel Sharon
A legendary warrior-statesman is mourned.
Ariel Sharon, the general and prime minister who embodied the Zionist notion of the new Jew — a robust man, adept with both plowshare and sword, and feared, hated and adored for his proficiency with the latter, died Jan. 11. He was 85.
Doctors said that Sharon, who had been in a vegetative state for eight years, had suffered renal failure in recent days, which led to multiple organ failure and death. On Jan. 4, 2006, while serving as prime minister, just two and-a-half months shy of elections that he was expected to win in a landslide, Sharon suffered a devastating stroke and never recovered.
He is survived by his older sister Dita, his two living sons, Omri and Gilad, his daughter-in-law Inbal, and his six grandchildren.
Sharon, as both military leader and prime minister, was the man to whom the Israeli public looked in its hours of need, yearning for the protection he provided and cognizant of the consequences it sometimes entailed. As Ari Shavit wrote in a piercing profile in the New Yorker in 2006, Israelis turned to Sharon in the 1950s, during the devastat- ing fedayun (terrorist) raids; as they did on Yom Kippur 1973; and yet again, most overwhelmingly, during the savagely bloody days of the Second Intifada.
He was defense minister during the 1982 Lebanon War and was found to bear personal responsibility for failing to prevent the Lebanese Christian Phalangist massacre of Palestinian Muslims in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
Toward the end of his political career, he was welcomed into the mainstream. In August 2005, he presided over the withdraw- al from Gaza, uprooting some 24 settlements in total and irrevocably severing his ties with the settlement movement that he had an instrumental role in founding.
Sharon was born on a rainy Feb. 26, 1928, to a violin-playing agronomist father and a legendarily tenacious mother.
His father, Samuil Scheinerman, was from the Belarussian city of Brest-Litovsk and had been raised a Zionist. His father’s father, Mordechai, had been best friends with Menachem Begin’s father, and the two had broken down the door of the local synagogue when the rabbi refused to hold a memorial for Theodor Herzl. Mordechai’s wife, Miriam, was a midwife; she birthed Menachem Begin.
Sharon’s mother, Vera Schneerof, from the tiny Belarussian village of Halavenchichi, was a reluctant Zionist. Her dream was to be a doctor. But in 1921, with the Red Army advancing on Tiflis, she hastily married Samuil, dropped out of medical school and set sail for Palestine.
In the summer of 1945, Sharon took part in the Haganah’s squad leader training course, far from the eyes of the British.
Shortly after the Nov. 29, 1947, vote that authorized the partition of Palestine, Sharon, then still known as Scheinerman, led a company of troops through the mud and heavy rain to the outskirts of Bir Addas, an Arab village that was host to Iraqi troops.
They exchanged fire but the call to charge on the Israeli side never came. Sharon led his men forward regardless. He was ultimately given complete command over the platoon in a sign of things to come.
Gen. Sharon never went to officer’s school. He was, however, a gifted commander. In 1967, he planned the IDF’s first divisional battle, against the Abu Agheila stronghold in the Sinai, completely on his own; till today, the battle is taught in military academies across the world.
During the Yom Kippur War, he led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal, breaking the back of the Egyptian offensive. As his troops encircled Egypt’s Third Army, Sharon, a reserves officer at the time, instructed them to plant Israeli flags on the high ground, so that the Egyptians would look back across the water and see that they were trapped.
Sharon, known to all as Arik, did not need to have orders spelled out for him. In 1952, Moshe Dayan asked him “to see” whether it would be possible to capture Jordanian soldiers and exchange them for Israeli POWs. That same day, without being told, Sharon rounded up a friend and a pickup truck and drove down to the Jordan River. He waded into the water, pretended to inquire about missing cows, and promptly disarmed two Jordanian soldiers.
Dayan, who recommended him for a citation after that mission, famously said of his generals that he preferred to restrain war horses than “prod oxen who refuse to move.” In the Suez war with Egypt in 1956, Sharon captured the strategic Mitla Pass in the Sinai after defying orders not to advance.
Despite Ben-Gurion’s persistent backing and Sharon’s stunning tactical successes in the Six-Day War, he was eventually pushed out of the army on July 15, 1973, only to be called back to become a hero in the Yom Kippur War three months later.
Sharon helped found the Likud Party. But he spent his first decade in politics serving under Menachem Begin. The two could not have been more different: lawyer and farmer, ideologue and pragmatist. When they first met in 1969, with Sharon still in uniform and looking for a way into politics, he was awed by Begin’s “extraordinarily pow- erful presence” and admitted to breaking into a cold sweat when they spoke.
During the peace talks with Egypt, their differ- ences rose to the surface. Begin would agree only to Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank. Sharon, his son revealed in his 2011 memoir, was willing to grant them a state. “Better to have a Palestinian state on part of the territory than autonomy across all of it,” Gilad heard him say countless times. The termi- nology, he felt, was irrelevant. The word autonomy on a document could metamorphose into a state, but an internationally recognized Palestinian state, which seemed like a bigger achievement for Egypt, would have fixed borders, allowing Israel to maintain the areas crucial to its security.
Sharon felt that Begin, a political Zionist like Herzl and Jabotinsky, “was a man who believed in the power of words and legal terms and consequently he gave a high priority to such things as pronounce- ments, declarations and formal agreements,” he wrote in his autobiography. Pragmatic Zionism, to which Sharon ardently subscribed, is based on “facts on the ground: reclaim another acre, drain another swamp, acquire another cow … don’t talk about it, just get it done.” This was the attitude with which he built the settlement enterprise, and this was the attitude with which he dismantled it.
Sharon admired Begin’s bravery, such as his decision to strike the Iraqi nuclear plant. But the Lebanon War and the subsequent Kahan Commision of Inquiry brought an end to their relationship.
Rise To Premiership
Sharon’s rise to the premiership, after years of backwater positions, began in earnest on Sept. 28, 2000, when he came through the Mughrabi Gate and visited the Temple Mount. The so-called Al Aqsa, or Second Intifada in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority ensued. Amid the bloodshed and the chaos, Ehud Barak stepped down, calling for new elections for prime minister.
On Feb. 6, 2001, Israelis chose Sharon over Barak by a 62-38 percent margin. Dayan’s prediction from years earlier had come true: “You will have to wait for a crisis to come along,” he said to Sharon. “It’s only then that they will let you out.”
As prime minister, Sharon flattened the wave of rising Palestinian terror; threw himself heart and soul into a global campaign to sideline and delegitimize Arafat; and, aided by the heinous events of 9-11 and a keen understanding of the American president, he maintained a strong relationship with then-president Bush and his administration.
In 2005, with the “Disengagement” from Gaza, he severed his ties to the settlement movement.
Several weeks later, he addressed the General Assembly on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. “I stand before you at the gate of nations as a Jew and as a citizen of the democratic, free and sovereign State of Israel, a proud representative of an ancient people,” he said. “I was born in the Land of Israel, the son of pioneers — people who tilled the land and sought no fights — who did not come to Israel to dispossess its residents. If the circumstances had not demanded it, I would not have become a soldier, but rather a farmer and agriculturist. My first love was, and remains, manual labor: sowing and harvesting, the pastures, the flock and the cattle.
“I, as someone whose path of life led him to be a fighter and commander in all Israel’s wars, reach out today to our Palestinian neighbors in a call for reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict, and embark on the path that leads to peace and understanding between our peoples. I view this as my calling and my primary mission for the coming years.”
The man who for years had been scorned by the international community, depicted as a butcher and a bloodthirsty leader, drew applause from all corners of the room. Three and a half months later, before revealing the full extent of his future plans, he fell, terminally, from consciousness.
Mitch Ginsburg | Times Of Israel