Ariel Sharon died on Saturday after eight long years in a coma. No Israeli has had such an enormous impact on the modern history of his nation. He was the pivotal Israeli in virtually all of the pivotal moments of Israeli history going back 40 years. And his legacy will shape Israel’s future and the future of the Middle East.
Like Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon was a “sabra,” one of the first Israeli leaders born in Palestine. (A “sabra” is a fruit native to the region; the term is used to describe native-born Israelis.) He held commands during the 1948 War of Independence and the ill-fated Suez expedition of 1956 and was the leader of Israel’s first major paratroop and commando units. He was a division commander during the dashing 1967 war, when Israel took just six days to defeat Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Sharon’s breakthrough at Abu Ageila left the whole Sinai peninsula open to Israeli conquest.
The 1967 war left Israel in control of Sinai and what we now call the Occupied Territories: mostly the Egyptian Gaza Strip and the Jordanian West Bank. Sharon expected to be named chief of staff soon. But sometime in the summer of 1973 he learned that he was going to be passed over. He angrily resigned and announced in a press conference that he intended to help lead the Right-Center coalition that was then taking shape to oppose the Labor party, which had ruled Israel since its inception. Sharon insisted only that the coalition unify, and weeks later, in September 1973, it announced a combined list under the name of Likud (“Unity”).
Just days later, Egypt and Syria launched the most devastating blow that the state of Israel has ever received. The Yom Kippur War must be regarded as by far the most brilliant military operation conducted by any Arab armies since antiquity. Egypt’s new leader, Anwar Sadat, began with carefully defined and carefully limited objectives. He devised a strategy to overwhelm the thin Israeli defenses along the Suez Canal with a tightly executed series of crossings-in-strength. The entire advance was to occur under the umbrella of Egypt’s new arsenal of Soviet air-defense missiles.
Sadat had little intention of sweeping across the Sinai peninsula. He meant only to overwhelm Israel’s forward defenses and capture enough territory on the other side of the Suez Canal to break the diplomatic impasse over the peninsula’s return and push Israel to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, the superbly well-prepared Egyptians inflicted such enormous losses on Israeli forces that Sadat soon found himself with more territory than he knew what to do with. The first Israeli counterattack petered out. Panic began to spread through Israel.
But time was in Israel’s favor. Within a week the national mobilization was starting to produce large numbers of reinforcements, just as a massive American resupply was starting to deliver weapons and ammunition of every description. Sharon was reactivated to take command of an Israeli brigade and found himself once again at the center of the Sinai front.
In a maneuver reminiscent of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805, Sharon attacked the very center of the enemy front, aiming at the seam between two large formations, then pressed on across the Suez and, once he was well to the rear of the enemy, moved to encircle one-half of the enemy force. The Israelis soon surrounded Egypt’s Third Army — the pride of its military.
Once again, Sharon’s breakthrough proved the turning point in the war. This time he emerged as a national hero. In 1977, Sharon helped lead Likud to its first electoral victory and became defense minister in the government of Menachem Begin.
Sharon always defied easy categories. The media portrayed him as an inveterate annexationist, but when the time came to give Sinai back to Egypt under the Camp David accords, it was Sharon who orchestrated the removal of Jewish settlements in the peninsula.
Having helped to end Israel’s last two wars, Sharon now set out to defeat the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1971 the PLO had been expelled from the West Bank. Their flight took them to Lebanon, which the PLO plunged into civil war. Once in Lebanon, PLO guerrillas also launched terrorist attacks, military raids, and — in a dark omen of things to come — missile barrages against civilian centers in Israel. In 1982 Begin agreed to Sharon’s proposal of a major military operation to occupy southern Lebanon and smash the PLO’s position there.
Once the war started, Israeli forces rushed through Lebanon and eventually trapped the PLO leadership in Beirut. Begin later distanced himself from the operation, saying that he had only agreed to operations in south Lebanon. But Sharon wasn’t interested in a modus vivendi. He wanted to defeat the PLO once and for all.
Some two months after the Israeli invasion, Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Phalangist militia, was elected president of Lebanon. Gemayel was just 35 years old, popular, charismatic, and attractive, and he enjoyed the kind of broad-based national support that was and remains rare in Lebanese politics. Scarcely three weeks after his election, he was murdered in a terrorist bombing of the Phalangist headquarters. The Phalangists were quick to attribute the attack to the PLO. They asked Israeli forces for permission to enter two Palestinian-refugee shantytowns that Israeli forces had surrounded as they swept through the area — Sabra and Shatila — in order to hunt down PLO fighters.
Sharon and the Israeli leadership were only too happy to oblige. But once reports of a massacre in the camps began to emerge, Sharon went to the camps himself, and — on surveying the situation there — immediately ordered the Phalangist units out. For some 800 murdered Palestinian civilians, it was too late.