Ariel Sharon dies: Obituary – Unlike his right-wing predecessors, former Israeli PM was ‘a pragmatist who could make concessions without feeling that he was committing sacrilege’

The first Likud prime minister of Israel who was not reared on the muscular Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the doctrine of “both banks of the Jordan are ours”

Eric Silver
Saturday 11 January 2014 13:30

Ariel Sharon was the first Likud prime minister of Israel who was not reared on the muscular Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky

The doctrine of “both banks of the Jordan are ours”, of the “wall of steel” that would compel the Arabs to acquiesce in a Jewish state. Like his three right-wing predecessors – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu – he never doubted the Jews’ right to the ancient homeland and their duty to defend it by force of arms. But, unlike them, he was a pragmatist who could make concessions without feeling that he was committing sacrilege.

Sharon was also the first Likud prime minister to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state, however parsimoniously. He was the first to call the West Bank and Gaza Strip “occupied” territory. Most radically, Sharon advocated the evacuation of Gaza and part of the West Bank, including settlements he himself had fostered.

He was a reluctant convert. He did not suddenly see the light and join the Peace Now campaigners. But he was clear-eyed enough to recognise the demographic threat that would undermine Israel’s Jewish identity and democratic aspirations if it continued to rule the whole land. Israeli researchers convinced him that there would be an Arab majority between the river and the sea by 2020. Expelling them, he knew, was no longer an option. Giving them the vote would create a bi-national state.

In the spirit of the founding father, David Ben-Gurion, he understood too that Israel did not live in a vacuum. It could not afford to alienate the United States or ignore Europe. It needed allies and trading partners if it was to survive and flourish. He wanted to offer Israelis a safer, more prosperous future, a state of which they and their diaspora brethren could be proud.

The pattern, if not the precise lines, of a new partition was clear. If it could not be attained by negotiation – and after Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada in September 2000 Sharon, like many Israelis, felt it could not – then Israel would separate itself unilaterally from the Palestinians.

He was born Ariel Scheinerman in 1928 into a family of stubbornly independent pioneer farmers in Kefar Mallal, a moshav (farming co-operative) in the Sharon plain north of Tel Aviv. His Russian-born parents, Shmuel and Vera, were the village awkward squad, anti-socialists in a community of socialists, individualists who built fences to keep the more gregarious neighbours at bay. Relations became so contentious that in his will Shmuel forbade any of them to deliver eulogies at his funeral. When Vera discovered that the moshav had allotted him a plot next to the grave of an old enemy, she stopped the burial until an alternative was found.

The young Ariel Sharon (as he became) grew up in bristling isolation. He learned to paint and to play the violin, to farm and to fight. But he made few friends among the village children. “I wondered,” he wrote wistfully in Warrior, his 1989 autobiography, “what their homes were like inside.”

He joined the Haganah, the precursor of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), in 1945, at the age of 17, and fought in the 1948 War of Independence as a platoon commander and intelligence officer. He served in Jerusalem and the northern Negev, making his mark as an inspirational leader and staying on as a career soldier.

His performance as a military strategist during the 1956 Suez War earned him a reputation as one of IDF’s most brilliant, if least disciplined, field commanders.

In 1952, he formed Unit 101, a special commando force designed for unconventional retaliatory operations in enemy territory. The following year, to avenge the murder of a Jewish woman and her two children, it invaded the Palestinian village of Qibya, destroying 45 houses and killing 69 villagers, half of them women and children. The raid provoked international outrage. In 1954, the unit was integrated into the paratroop regiment, with Sharon as its commander.

His performance as a military strategist during the 1956 Suez War earned him a reputation as one of IDF’s most brilliant, if least disciplined, field commanders. He disobeyed orders and sent paratroopers into the Mitla Pass deep in the Sinai desert. It ended disastrously with 38 Israeli dead. Moshe Dayan, the Chief of Staff, censured Sharon for “mistaken judgment and tactical errors”, but took the matter no further. “The truth is,” Dayan wrote later, “that I regard the problem as grave when a unit fails to fulfil its battle task, not when it goes beyond the bounds of duty and does more than is demanded of it.”

As a major-general commanding an armoured division during the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon revealed a new talent for orchestrating huge, set-piece battles. In 1969, he was appointed Chief of Southern Command. He ruthlessly demolished thousands of homes in Gaza refugee camps to open roads for anti-terror patrols and deported hundreds of young men to Jordan and Lebanon. The number of sabotage attacks dropped dramatically.

Sharon retired from the army in June 1972 after he recognised that he was not going to be promoted to be Chief of Staff. He entered politics as a member of the Liberal party and melded it with Begin’s Herut and two smaller parties to form the Likud. One awed partner marvelled: “He raped four political parties.”

He was called back to the colours to command a reserve division in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but quarrelled constantly with his fellow generals. Some who had been his subordinates were now his superiors. As so often, before and after that war, he was sure he knew better. To prove his point, it was Sharon, his head romantically bandaged, who planned and executed the strike across the Suez Canal that turned the tide for Israel.

Back in civilian life, he was elected to parliament in December 1973, resigning after a year to accept an emergency appointment with the IDF. From June 1975 to March 1976, he served as special adviser on terrorism to the Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Before the 1977 elections, Sharon founded a new political party, Shlomzion, which won two seats. Soon afterwards, he rejoined the Likud, which had won the elections, and was appointed Agricultural Minister in Begin’s first government. Sharon spearheaded Jewish settlement expansion, planting communities amid Palestinian towns and villages. Yet he supported returning Sinai to Egypt under the 1979 peace treaty and supervised the destruction of the Jewish settlements there.

In 1981, Begin appointed him Defence Minister. Sharon planned and orchestrated Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, extending the war’s objectives far beyond those approved by the government. The Prime Minister’s son, Benny Begin, testified to a Tel Aviv court in 1996 that Sharon had deceived his father, who believed Israel was embarking on a limited operation to clear Palestinian gunmen from a 40km-deep strip across the northern border.

Sharon planned and orchestrated Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, extending the war’s objectives far beyond those approved by the government.

Instead, the tanks rolled on to the gates of Beirut and joined battle with the Syrian garrison in eastern Lebanon. The war destroyed the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s military infrastructure and drove its leaders to exile in Tunis, but it left Israeli troops mired in guerrilla warfare in Lebanon for the next 18 years.

An Israeli commission headed by Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan condemned Sharon for not preventing the slaughter of up to 800 Palestinians by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. Israel had sent them in ostensibly to clean out residual pockets of fighters after the PLO’s evacuation from Beirut. The Phalangists’ leader, Bashir Gemayel, had just been assassinated. Kahan pilloried Sharon for “having disregarded the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed”. As a consequence, he was forced to leave the Defence Ministry, but allowed to stay in the cabinet. Sabra and Chatila returned to haunt him 19 years later, when Belgium threatened to put him on trial for war crimes.

In 1984, and again in 1988, he was appointed Industry and Trade Minister in a National Unity government. From 1990 to 1992, he served as Housing and Construction Minister under Yitzhak Shamir. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he built homes for hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

When the Likud returned to office in 1996, Netanyahu appointed Sharon National Infrastructure Minister and Foreign Minister two years later. Following the election of Labour’s Ehud Barak in May 1999, Sharon succeeded Netanyahu as Likud leader. His ill-advised visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 sparked Muslim riots, which grew into a second, bloodier intifada.

Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February 2001 following the collapse of Barak’s peace policy and his failure to control the violence. On a platform of “peace with security”, the new prime minister promised to cede no more territory, evacuate no settlements and keep the whole of Jerusalem. At most, he would grant the Palestinians independence on the 42 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip they already held under the 1993 Oslo accords. A more skilful political operator than Rabin and Barak, two other generals who made it to the premiership, Sharon brought Labour into a unity government, with Shimon Peres as Foreign Minister and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer at Defence.

After a suicide bomber killed 30 Jews celebrating Passover in a resort hotel in Netanya in March 2002, Sharon took the battle to the terrorists, invading West Bank cities, destroying buildings, killing and capturing hundreds of Palestinian fighters. Although the bloodshed continued, albeit on a reduced scale, the voters endorsed his aggressive strategy and confirmed him in office by a landslide in January 2003 – this time without Labour and without the ultra-Orthodox parties.

In his seventies, Sharon, squiring it over his ranch in the Negev desert, appeared to have mellowed. “The biggest change,” one of his associates said, “is that he has learned to count to 10 before taking a decision.” Sharon himself described the process:

“First I wait until evening, when I drive back to the farm and have a long way to think. Then I visit the sheep and cows. Then I go to sleep. The next morning I visit the sheep and cows again. And only then do I decide what to do.”

For all that, some decisions still looked as if they had been improvised under the pressure of public opinion and of his unruly coalition. At first he opposed the construction of a West Bank security fence, then he adopted it. When the settlers demanded to be inside the fence rather than out, he hastily changed the route. Palestinians and Israeli critics protested that it imposed unacceptable hardship on Arabs. Most of world opinion agreed with them. The United Nations General Assembly requested the international court of justice in The Hague to examine the legal aspects, effectively putting Israel in the dock. In July 2004, the court condemned the barrier. Israel’s own Supreme Court acknowledged Israel’s right to protect its citizens, but ordered the government to reroute it to minimise damage to the daily lives of Palestinian residents.

Sharon, who had always refused to shake Arafat’s hand, in 2001 declared the Palestinian leader “irrelevant” and isolated him in the ruins of his Ramallah headquarters. When Arafat in 2003 appointed Mahmoud Abbas as the first Palestinian prime minister, Sharon opened negotiations and accepted a “performance-based road map to a permanent two-state solution” drafted by the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Abandoning his earlier contention that “Jordan is Palestine” and that the Jews had a right to all of the land west of the river, Sharon labelled the West Bank and Gaza “occupied” territory and declared that Israel could not go on ruling 3.5 million Palestinians.

He scaled down anti-terrorist operations after Palestinian fighting groups signed a unilateral ceasefire in July 2003, but returned to the offensive after they continued to execute attacks. Palestinians criticised him for doing too little to ease the burden of occupation, and the Abbas administration soon crumbled. His controversial strategy of “targeted killings” climaxed with the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, in March 2004.

Palestinians criticised Sharon for doing too little to ease the burden of occupation.

Trampling over strident opposition from his own Likud and the settlement lobby, Sharon evacuated 21 Gaza settlements and four from the northern West Bank in August 2005. He was utterly convinced that he knew what was good for Israel. When he was reminded that he had been the great settlement builder, he retorted: “I was right then, and I’m right now.”

Many in the Likud, in and out of the Knesset, could never forgive him. He had put the disengagement to a referendum of party members. When they voted “No”, he ignored them. But, however queasily, the nation and the security services were behind him. Prophecies of civil war proved false. Settler resistance was more street theatre than insurrection.

After the Likud rebels vetoed his appointment of two new ministers and threatened to continue harassing him, he split the party in November 2005 and launched a new centre-right party, Kadima, which attracted defectors from Likud and Labour. He called early elections for March 2006.

Kadima, a party without a manifesto and without a grassroots infrastructure, was Sharon. So long as no questions were raised about his age or health, the voters seemed happy with that. He dominated the opinion polls as he dominated the country. But a mild stroke in December 2005 reminded voters that he would be 78 by election day and that he was notoriously overweight. Nevertheless he returned to public duties only days afterwards. He was awaiting a minor operation to repair a hole in his heart when he suffered a further stroke in January that permanently incapacitated him and led, ultimately, to his death from multiple organ malfunction. Under his successor, Ehud Olmert, Kadima won the March general election, though by a narrower margin than it might have expected under Sharon.

Ariel Sharon’s premiership was shadowed by police investigations of his family’s business affairs. In March 2004 Edna Arbel, the Chief Prosecutor, recommended that he be indicted on charges of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from an Israeli property developer, but she was over-ruled by the Attorney-General, who argued that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. While Sharon was on his death-bed, his older son, Omri, was sentenced to nine months in prison for illegal fund-raising for his father’s 2001 and 2003 campaigns.

His first wife, Margalit Zimmerman, a neighbour from Kefar Mallal, had died in a traffic accident in 1962. Sharon subsequently married her sister, Lily. Tragedy struck again in 1967 when his and Margalit’s son, Gur, was shot dead while playing with a shotgun. In March 2000, Lily died of lung cancer.

Ariel Scheinerman (Ariel Sharon), soldier and politician: born Kefar Mallal, Palestine 27 February 1928; Prime Minister of Israel and Minister of Immigrant Absorption 2001-06; founder, Kadima party 2005; married 1953 Margalit Zimmerman (died 1962; one son deceased), 1963 Lily Zimmerman (died 2000; two sons); died 11 January 2014.

Writer Eric Silver, a journalist for over three decades who wrote from Manchester, London, Jerusalem and Delhi, died of pancreatic cancer, aged 73, in 2008. Working as a freelance correspondent from 1987, he became recognised as a leading reporter of the Middle East peace process from Jerusalem.