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.
Fairly or unfairly, it was also too late to save Sharon’s reputation, and indeed that of Israel, at least for a time. Sharon’s saturation bombardment of PLO areas of West Beirut, and his general sympathy for the use of overwhelming force, caused a negative reaction both inside and outside of Israel. Across Israel, charity groups formed to deliver help to the devastated Lebanese communities. Labor-party leaders blamed Begin and Sharon for having lost the moral high ground. One British paper ran a cartoon of Sharon eating children, and even President Reagan called to implore the Israeli government to restrain its military or suffer major damage to its relations with the U.S.
An Israeli commission concluded that Sharon was partly responsible for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. In 1983 he was forced to resign. But he had achieved his objective. Once again, he had decisively defeated the enemy. He got PLO fighters out of Lebanon and forced the PLO leadership to accept exile far away in Tunisia.
His political career could have been over at that point. But Sharon was still only 55 years old and full of energy, and the following year he became minister of industry, trade, and labor. He held that post through the 1980s, then assumed the portfolio of housing and construction in 1990. But two years later, just as a young president Bill Clinton was about to take office in the U.S., Labor was restored to power in Israel and Sharon was out.
The Gulf War seemed to leave Israel in a commanding position to secure peace with its neighbors. Yasser Arafat’s foolish support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait cost the PLO a good deal of support among the Gulf kingdoms, and even Syria and Jordan joined the American-led coalition. The Soviet Union finally recognized Israel, as did dozens of other countries. Secretary of State James Baker had brought Israel and its Arab neighbors into their first face-to-face negotiations since the 1967 War (with the exception of the Camp David accords with Egypt).
The new Israeli government under Yitzhak Rabin was fully dedicated to the “peace process” that emerged from the Gulf War. His initial refusal to negotiate with the PLO, and insistence on negotiating with Palestinians in the territories instead, didn’t last. Rabin decided that the PLO would be able to reach a peace agreement and enforce it on the Palestinians. He fatefully invited Arafat back to the territories under a series of agreements negotiated in Oslo, Norway, starting in 1993, thereby undoing one of the few tangible gains of the invasion of Lebanon, namely the expulsion of the PLO from the Middle East.
In 1995, Rabin was murdered by a young Israeli settler angered at his willingness to surrender territory. Labor’s governing coalition fell apart, and Likud was soon back in power, this time led by the young Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon was given the portfolio for energy and water but was elevated to foreign minister in 1998, the last year of Netanyahu’s government. The following year, Labor came back to power, led this time by Ehud Barak, who governed just long enough to get snubbed by Arafat at Camp David in the final months of Clinton’s presidency.
In September 2000, Sharon was campaigning as leader of Likud when he took a walk on the Temple Mount and declared that it would remain in Israel’s hands forever. The next day the second Palestinian intifada began. In March 2001, he became prime minister. Israel was now in the throes of Arafat’s terror war, and Sharon knew that any forceful and decisive action to end the murderous campaign would need buy-in from all major Israeli factions.
By this time, Israel had already withdrawn from most of the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the bulk of the Occupied Territories in the hands of a new “government” called the Palestinian Authority, under the control of Arafat. The Gaza border was easy enough to patrol, but preventing determined terrorist infiltrations from the West Bank was nearly impossible for geographic reasons. The West Bank would have to be invaded and subdued.
This time, however, the use of heavy artillery and saturation bombing was out of the question. Overwhelming force would have to be applied in a much more surgical manner. Guarding his political flanks, Sharon unleased Operation Defensive Shield, invading the West Bank with four full divisions of Israeli troops — some 35,000 soldiers. In the major centers of terrorist infrastructure, Israeli soldiers went house to house, firing and fired at as they went, sometimes using civilians to open the doors of houses they suspected to be booby-trapped. One unit took on the terrorist-infested refugee camp at Jenin, and claims of a “massacre” were once again made, only to be convincingly refuted. Israel’s targets were the terrorist foot soldiers of Arafat’s Al-Aqsa Brigades, the Islamic Jihad, and of course Hamas, the most deadly and hateful Palestinian terrorist organization of all.
Many years later, Israeli Labor MP Einat Wilf explained the resoluteness of Israelis during Operation Defensive Shield. If the First Intifada, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had sown doubts among her fellow young Israelis about the justice of Israel’s cause, the Second Intifada had the opposite effect. “The Second Intifada was so murderous,” she told me, “and in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in our own cities, that we had to wonder what the Palestinians were really fighting for. Perhaps they were not fighting for a state of their own, but only for the sake of fighting, for the sake of driving the Jews from the land entirely. So the Israelis had absolutely no moral compunctions about Operation Defensive Shield. It had to be done.”
The Israelis came to stay, setting up checkpoints and intelligence-gathering cells and settling down to indefinite platoon-sized security operations in the West Bank. Inoculated against criticism from the left by the steadfast support of Ehud Barak, the former Labor prime minister, the Sharon government embarked on a new project to defend Israeli civilians against terrorists from the West Bank — the separation wall. The wall has been criticized as a violation of international law, but these charges are silly. It is easily justified as a matter of self-defense, a necessary and wholly proportional response to the problem of terrorist infiltration from the West Bank.
Once again, Sharon had totally defeated Arafat and the PLO. But this time, rather than sink his reputation, the victory made him a paramount leader within Israel, atop a unity government of Right and Left. Both Operation Defensive Shield and the wall that followed worked. In 2004, only a small handful of Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks, compared with the more than 1,000 killed in the previous three years. Since then, years have passed without a suicide bombing in Israel.
One criticism leveled against the separation wall was that it altered the facts on the ground unilaterally, leaving some Palestinian territories on the Israeli side, thereby undermining the peace process. But Arafat himself had shown that the Oslo process was doomed — at least he had managed to convince most Israelis of that. Altering the facts on the ground unilaterally was the whole point of Sharon’s policy. He continued to cooperate with “peace process” initiatives based on Oslo, such as the U.S.-led “road map,” but doesn’t appear to have put much hope in them. The “peace process” had failed. Sharon was focused on the next step.
For Sharon, it was no longer a question of whether to free the Palestinians from occupation, but of how to free Israel from the occupation and still leave it within defensible borders. It was apparently in that frame of mind that Sharon resolved to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. The disengagement involved uprooting a cluster of settlements in the Gaza Strip, including some 15,000 settlers. It was completed in September 2005, amidst protests throughout Israel and within his own Likud party.
After the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon decided to form a new political grouping, Kadima (“Forward”), and was widely expected to win the elections slated for spring 2006. In January, though, Sharon suffered a stroke that left him in a persistent vegetative state until his death Saturday. His absence did not take long to produce major consequences. Israel’s very next conflict, against Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006, was marked by strategic indecision and tactical miscues — and after the fighting was done, Hezbollah remained firmly in place.
Both the execution and the result would have been unimaginable under Sharon. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Hezbollah chose to strike when it did precisely because Sharon was incapacitated. And sure enough, since Sharon left the stage, Israel has tended to prefer self-restraint to overwhelming force, and ambiguous cease-fires to decisive victories, as if resigned to a permanent state of conflict. Even after 50 years of warfare, Sharon never resigned himself to that. He was a fighter all his life, but it was peace that he was fighting for.
What is Sharon’s legacy? We are watching it unfold in the Middle East today.
Following his stroke, political power in Israel oscillated between two parties — Likud and Kadima — that had been created by Sharon. That wasn’t entirely his doing. First, the Labor party had to destroy itself, which it did by embracing a peace process that elevated Arafat’s bunch of unreformed terrorists to “peace partners.” Labor was wiped out in the elections of 2009, reduced to just 14 seats. The party that had created Israel and ruled it for most of its existence was replaced by a political framework of Sharon’s own creation. In last year’s elections, Labor once again became the leader of the opposition (with Kadima reduced to just two seats), but not before adjusting to the new political reality in Israel, which is that the failure of the Oslo peace process has pushed the entire Israeli electorate to the right.
After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas took over, and missiles began raining down on Israel’s southern towns. Despite massive operations such as Cast Lead, during the winter of 2008–09, the rocket fire has never completely stopped. Most Middle East experts still don’t realize that the two-state solution almost certainly died with the Palestinian violence that followed the Gaza disengagement. In Gaza, Sharon gave the Palestinians an opportunity to prove to everyone that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be suicide — and they took it.
A recent op-ed by Ronen Bergman in the New York Times speculates that Sharon could have made peace with the Palestinians if he had lived longer, because he was the one man who could force the settlers in the West Bank to abandon their homes. That misunderstands the true obstacles to peace, and it misses the whole point of Sharon’s career. Sharon was the one man who could have made peace with the Palestinians because he was the one man who could defeat the Palestinians.
— Mario Loyola is former foreign and defense counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.