Like Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon had a distinguished military career before ascending to the premiership of Israel. As political leaders, each of them initiated bold and innovative steps in the quest for a just and lasting peace with the Palestinians. Tragically, Rabin and Sharon died in office; sadly, none of them saw their dreams of peace come true.
In Arik, veteran Israeli journalist David Landau provides a highly readable and informative account of Sharon's lifelong transformation from a "swashbuckling extremist with a vicious streak and a big chip on his shoulder" to "a seasoned yet mellowed leader whom the country could rely on." His treatment of Sharon's complex persona, warts and all, is fair and incisive, and his analysis of Sharon's equally controversial policies is objective and perceptive.
Sharon's military exploits as commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ranged between sheer brilliance and utter disaster. His penchant for relying on excessive use of force and ignoring orders became evident early on in his career, when in late 1953 he was put in charge of Unit 101, a special force tasked with reprisal raids in response to attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian infiltrators from the West Bank. Disobeying orders from the High Command to avoid shooting women and children, on October 12, 1953, Sharon led a combined force of 100 paratroopers and 25 soldiers from Unit 101 into the West Bank village of Kibbiya. The Israelis blew up 46 homes and killed 69 Palestinian inhabitants, most of them women and children.
Although Unit 101 was disbanded as an independent entity in early 1954, there followed several additional "serious lapses of ethical standards" after Sharon assumed command of a paratroop battalion. These included the kidnapping of Jordanian soldiers who were to be exchanged for a previously captured Israeli and the cold-blooded murder of five Bedouins in revenge for the murder of the sister of one of Sharon's colleagues.
Sharon's budding reputation as a brilliant military leader suffered a severe blow during the 1956 Sinai war, after it became apparent that his stubborn tendency to act on his own and take ill-advised risks led to the deaths of almost 40 paratroopers and the injury of more than 100 who were trapped by Egyptian forces in the Mitla Pass. After the war, the "acerbic, arrogant, but gifted" Sharon was essentially fired when he was sent for a yearlong course in England.
Landau maintains that Sharon deserves a share of the credit for Israel's swift victory in the 1967 war, not only as an outstanding commander of an armored division in the Sinai but also because he successfully inculcated paratroop traditions throughout the IDF. In marked contrast to 1956, his performance in 1967 was "classic: a battlefield commander in his metier, unsullied by outbursts of argument or disobedience." Shortly after the war, Sharon transferred several military training schools to abandoned Arab Legion camps that rapidly expanded as nuclei for eventual civilian adjunct settlements in the West Bank.
After his promotion to commanding officer of the southern command in December 1969, Sharon reverted back to acting without explicit authority from higher military or civilian echelons and relying on excessive brutality. His forces used bulldozers to destroy crops and hundreds of homes in an effort to root out terrorists from the Gaza Strip. In January 1972, he oversaw the forcible ouster of some 10,000 sedentary Bedouins living in the Rafah Salient between Gaza and Egypt. Furthermore, to reserve an area for IDF maneuvers, Sharon ordered the expulsion of some 3,000 Bedouins from the Abu Ageilah area in the Sinai, causing about 40 of them, including children and elderly people, to die from exposure to freezing temperatures.
Sharon's illustrious military career ended on a high note after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which he commanded the 143rd Division in the central sector of the Sinai. According to Landau, on the battlefield Sharon was Israel's MacArthur: "arrogant, swashbuckling, manipulative, loved or hated, always controversial, master of self-promotion, contemptuous of his superiors." While he boasted to have concocted the plan to cross the Suez Canal — even though the crossing was an established IDF doctrine since the 1967 war — Sharon is credited with outlining and then implementing the brilliant tactical aspects of the plan that resulted in the decisive crossing of the IDF from the Sinai into Egypt proper during the night of October 16. Landau notes that "Sharon, whatever the subsequent — and previous — controversies surrounding him, has his place assured in the Israeli pantheon on the basis of that one night's battle."
Sharon's political odyssey began with his election to the Knesset as a Likud party member in late 1973. He resigned shortly after the Knesset enacted legislation forbidding senior officers holding field commands from serving as MKs. In early 1975, he became defense adviser to Labor Prime Minister Rabin while actively supporting the efforts of the rightist Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) to establish settlements throughout the West Bank. In May 1977, Sharon joined Menachem Begin's Likud coalition government and served for the following four years as minister of agriculture and chairman of the ministerial settlement committee. Determined to prevent the rise of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories, he accelerated the settlement construction boom in the West Bank and Northern Sinai.
Following his appointment as defense minister in June 1981, Sharon concocted plans for Operation Peace for Galilee, an IDF invasion of Lebanon designed to defeat the PLO, install a pro-Israeli Christian government in Beirut, and drive the Palestinians from Lebanon to Jordan, where they would overthrow the Hashemite King Hussein and establish their own independent state. However, when he briefed the cabinet days before the actual invasion in early June 1982, Sharon lied about each element of the plan. He promised an incursion that would only last 24 hours, stop at the Litani river (about 25 miles north of the border), avoid war with Syria, and refrain from interfering in Lebanon's domestic politics.
Peace for Galilee turned out to be a military and political disaster for Israel and a personal calamity for Sharon. The ostensibly limited IDF invasion led to a war with Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley and a 70-day bloody siege of Beirut. The fighting lasted for over two years and resulted in the deaths of 650 Israeli soldiers and about 20,000 Lebanese. Israel failed to secure any of its political objectives, and the IDF became enmeshed in the feuds between Lebanese Muslims and Christians. In early 1983, an Israeli government investigative commission held Sharon personally responsible for the role that the IDF had played in facilitating the entry of the Christian Phalange forces into the Sabra and Shatila camps in West Beirut. This debacle ended in the slaughter of more than 800 Palestinian refugees. He resigned as minister of defense in February 1983.
Sharon's exile from politics did not last long. In mid-1984, he began a slow yet steady rehabilitation, serving as minister of industry and trade in the Likud-Labor government of national unity. In February 1990, he became minister of housing and during the following year oversaw the quadrupling of settlement construction in the West Bank. Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him minister of national infrastructure in 1996, and then foreign minister in late 1998. A few months later, he assumed leadership of the Likud opposition party in the Knesset.
As a staunch Likudnik during those years, Sharon was opposed to negotiations with the PLO and to the formation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank. He denounced the 1993 Oslo accords as a historic mistake and accused Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres of committing treason. His preferred solution for the occupied territories proposed the establishment of seven noncontiguous enclaves, four in the West Bank and three in Gaza, with Palestinian inhabitants therein enjoying extremely limited personal autonomy. Critics dubbed these "Sharon's Bantustans."
Sharon reinforced his animus toward the Palestinians with several highly provocative acts of personal defiance. In early 1988, he moved into an apartment in the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem in order to stop Foreign Minister Peres from his presumed intent to cede the Old City to King Hussein. When rumors leaked out that, at the second Camp David summit, Ehud Barak offered PLO leader Yasser Arafat the right to exercise sovereignty over Muslim and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem, Sharon appeared at the Temple Mount protected by a huge contingent of armed Israeli policemen. The ill-advised and fateful visit on September 28, 2000, triggered the second intifada, a violent conflagration that ended in February 2005, having resulted in the deaths of some 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, most of them innocent civilians.
Sharon's remarkable political rehabilitation reached its climax in February 2001, when the man previously denounced as the "Butcher of Sabra and Shatila" was elected to serve as Israel's eleventh prime minister. Equally remarkable was the appearance of several glimpses of evidence that Sharon was beginning to change his thinking and approach to the Palestinian conflict. The collapse of direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the ever-rising toll of the intifada persuaded Sharon that the only sensible alternative for attaining progress toward peace was unilateral steps designed to achieve separation between Israel and the Palestinians. Slowly, yet steadily, he came to understand that Israel could not continue the occupation indefinitely if it sought to remain a democratic nation and concurrently retain its Jewish majority and character.
Sharon's move toward moderation was initially shrouded in secrecy. In his March 2001 White House meeting with George W. Bush, he expressed a willingness to withdraw from unspecified parts of the West Bank and dismantle some Jewish settlements in exchange for an end-of-belligerence accord with the PLO as a first step toward a formal peace treaty.
Two weeks after 9/11 and after prodding by Bush and Powell, Sharon publicly and unequivocally voiced support for the eventual emergence of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied areas. In late June 2002 after re-occupying most of the West Bank, he managed to secure the approval of his fractious cabinet for construction of the first phase of the separation fence, a momentous decision that signaled Sharon's abandonment of his dream of a "Greater Israel" and the death of his "Bantustan" scheme.
More evidence that Sharon had changed "from obdurate confrontationist to determined peacemaker" seemed to emerge in May 2003, when his cabinet approved the so-called Road Map, a joint plan by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations outlining a three-stage process that was to culminate in a comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005. It was, however, predicated in a cessation of violence and a halt to settlement building, neither of which could be implemented.
Sharon's most dramatic volte face occurred on February 2, 2004, when he announced plans for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip and from three (later four) settlements in the northern West Bank.
Although the Gaza disengagement plan was rejected by most Likud activists, settler organizations, and the rank and file of the Ultra-Othodox, it was eventually approved by the cabinet and enjoyed widespread popular support. The evacuation of some 9,000 Israelis from 21 Gaza settlements between August 15-22, 2005, went remarkably smoothly. Due to the assistance of some 40,000 specially trained soldiers and police, the withdrawal was carried out much faster, and it generated considerably lower levels of violent resistance than had been originally anticipated.
While Landau notes that the Gaza disengagement was a "monumental change of direction for Israel," the July 2014 war between Hamas and the IDF — the third in the last six years — reminds us that Sharon's bold and unilateral step did not end the occupation of Gaza. Since 2005, Israel has continued to blockade the enclave, home to 1.8 million Palestinians, tightly controlling Gaza's borders, airspace and sea access. According to Landau, the tragic aftermath of the Gaza disengagement might have been avoided had Sharon relied less on unilateralism and more on closer coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Specifically, he could have tried to ensure that PA security forces gained firm control of the Gaza Strip, and he could have tried to secure approval from his cabinet for implementing an elaborate agreement on access, trade and communication between Israel and Gaza, and between Gaza and the West Bank. Landau is also critical of Sharon's "relative passivity" in response to both the determination of Hamas to run in the Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January 2006, and to the rocket fire that rained down on the township of Sderot even before the disengagement.
These limitations and criticisms of the disengagement notwithstanding, Landau claims that "one precedent-setting fact stands out as indisputable: settlements can be dismantled and settlers removed." That proposition, however, is indeed very debatable for two reasons. First, the 2005 unilateral withdrawal involved a relatively small number of settlers in contrast to the 350,000 currently residing in the West Bank. Second, there are no holy sites in Gaza, and the enclave has never held the kind of historic and religious significance that Jews in general attach to Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank.
On January 4, 2006, Ariel Sharon was felled by a massive stroke from which he never recovered. After being in a vegetative state for eight years, he died on January 11, 2014. Landau speculates that, had Sharon remained in office, he would have led Israel to large-scale withdrawals from the West Bank. In his view, the ongoing and elusive quest for a two-state solution since Sharon's death makes his premature passing that much more tragic.