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Who was Arik Sharon?

The varying nature of the Israeli soldier-politician's career means that there is no consensus in its aftermath, says Colin Shindler.

Colin Shindler
26 January 2014

Ariel Sharon’s controversial life which ended on 11 January 2014, produced both adulatory tributes and acid condemnations. Few seemed to be able to lift the veil of confusion and provide insights into this complex character.

Tony Blair, representing the Quartet at the memorial ceremony, described him as "tough but shy, indomitable, yet a servant to his people, a warrior to create his country, yet wise enough to know that war alone could not secure its future....he was a giant of this land." On the other hand, the Israeli academic Amit Schejter, told Ha’aretz readers that Sharon’s death did not bring closure for him. A participant in Israel’s controversial invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he wrote: "For me, Sharon will always be the man who saw my peers and myself as nothing more than pawns in his megalomaniac campaigns".

Sharon was undoubtedly reckless. As head of Unit 101 which was responsible for responding to Arab attacks on civilians during the early years of Israel’s existence, his men killed sixty-nine men, women and children in the village of Qibya in Jordan in 1953. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's prime minister, tried to cover up for Sharon whereas the foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, was highly condemnatory. It was also the first time that diaspora Jewish leaders were openly critical of an Israeli government.

During the Suez campaign in October 1956, Sharon disobeyed instructions and led his men into the Mitla Pass, sustaining a high number of casualties. In 1982 the Israel cabinet decided to respond to the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK outside London’s Dorchester Hotel. Even though it had been the work of the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group, Menachem Begin’s government instigated "Operation Peace for Galilee" to clear the PLO from a 40km swathe of territory north of Israel’s border with Lebanon. Sharon, then minister of defence, instead took the troops to Beirut in an attempt to dislodge Yasser Arafat and to neutralise "Fatahland", the PLO’s military enclave. The Israeli cabinet, which had not agreed to this, was in total disarray. Returning soldiers attended demonstrations against the war in uniform. Some refused to obey orders. Sharon’s office controlled the channels of communication to Begin. When journalists began to uncover the duplicity of Sharon’s actions, he termed them "poisoners of wells". 

The war divided Israel. Some 400,000 Israelis - the equivalent of 5-6 million coming out in London - protested following the killing of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Christian Phalangists. Shimon Peres, then leader of the Labour Party and today Israeli president, also demonstrated against the war. The Phalangists were Sharon’s allies in this venture and took the opportunity to settle scores while Israeli troops stood guard outside the camp oblivious of what was happening within. When the Kahan commission reported the following year, Sharon was asked to draw "the appropriate personal conclusions". He neither resigned nor was dismissed.

The other side of the coin was that Sharon showed tremendous courage on the battlefield. During the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, he turned the tide following the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal. Unlike the six-day war in June 1967, there was no Israeli breakthrough, only concerted Egyptian military progress under a Soviet missile umbrella. Sharon’s inspiration led to an Israeli crossing of the canal in the opposite direction. This resulted in the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army so that the Israelis were within striking distance of Cairo.

A talent to divide


So which Arik Sharon should Israelis adhere to: the reckless Sharon of 1982 or the courageous strategist of 1973; the catalyst for Sabra and Shatila or the saviour of Israel during the Yom Kippur war? Different Israelis will adhere to different Sharons.

In the narrower political sphere, Sharon produces similar contradictions. In the late 1970s, he predicted that there would be 2 million Israeli settlers by the end of the 20th century. At the beginning of the succeeding century, he instead unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, quoting Vladimir Jabotinsky - the so-called father of the Israel right - that settlements were not the be-all and end-all of the Zionist experiment.

The clue to understanding Sharon’s volte-face is that unlike Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu, he was not hemmed in by the traditional ideology of the Israel right - that of Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, Menachem Begin’s Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi (the Stern Group). Sharon originally came from the Israeli labour movement. His role models were not Jabotinsky or Begin, but David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan.

Both were associated with the right wing of the labour movement. Ben-Gurion broke with Mapai, the forerunner of the Israel Labour party in 1965, and established Rafi. This party failed miserably at the elections and split further with Ben-Gurion remaining with the rump, the State List. This gained four seats in the 1969 election and Ben-Gurion dropped out of politics the following year. The State List - defectors from Labour - were founders of the Likud in 1973. This was Sharon’s political trajectory: moving from the left to the right, and becoming the midwife at the birth of the Likud.

Moshe Dayan was blamed for the lack of preparedness following the stalemate of the Yom Kippur war. He too left the Labour Party and joined Menachem Begin’s first government in 1977 as foreign minister.

Dayan and Sharon both believed that territory should be retained to provide strategic depth, that West Bank settlements would impede any advancing Arab land army. Menachem Begin's desire, however, to retain the West Bank was neither based on Biblical notions of Israel’s borders nor indeed on secular ones, concerned with security, but on the original British Mandate in 1920, which encompassed both the west and east banks of the river Jordan.

The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 resided in Sharon’s belief that the settlements there now decreased Israel’s security. The fact that his supporter and eventual successor, Ehud Olmert, dropped some heavy hints in the Israel press that there would be further withdrawals makes it is not unreasonable to surmise that Sharon would have pulled back further if he had not been felled by a stroke in January 2006.

He was also able to rearrange Israeli politics by splitting from Likud to establish the centrist Kadima. He was joined in the new party by his fellow defector from labour Zionism, Shimon Peres.

Sharon viewed the conflict with the Palestinians as merely a continuation of the war of 1948. In the 1970s, he had proclaimed that "Jordan is Palestine" since a majority of its inhabitants were Palestinian. By the 21st century, he had moved to endorsing a two-state solution: not a situation of two contiguous territories, existing side by side, but a Palestinian state comprising an archipelago of Palestinian population areas.

The rise of Palestinian Islamism helped to scupper the Oslo accords and any agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps. Moreover any outbreak of violence traditionally sends the Israeli electorate cosmically to the right in search of a protector. In 1988 during the first intifada, Shamir won the election. In 1996 during Hamas’s campaign of bus-bombs in the heart of Tel Aviv, the electorate voted for Netanyahu. In 2001, the advent of the suicide-bomber gave Sharon, hitherto yesterday’s man, a resounding victory. He crushed the al-Aqsa intifada, decapitated Hamas’s leadership and delegitimised Arafat.

While Palestinians hated Sharon as the devil incarnate, many Israelis saw him reborn as a respected man of conviction. Moreover he confronted the powerful settler lobby - his ally for thirty years - and withdrew from territory.

So both Tony Blair and Amit Schejter see contrasting Sharons - from distinct periods of history. In 1982 Sharon wanted to kill Arafat in Beirut. In 1998 at the Wye River talks, he negotiated with him.

In one sense everyone will have their own imagery of Sharon, depending on perspectives of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the incidents which matter most. Even in death he remains controversial with a talent to divide.

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