When Ariel Sharon published his memoirs in 1989, he titled the 592-page volume “Warrior.” He could not have chosen a more apt descriptor.
That’s how he saw himself. That’s how every Israeli saw him. That’s how every Arab saw him, and every world leader, too. Love him or hate him — and few Israelis have provoked more controversy — everyone knew the man was, at his core, a fighter.
From there, Sharon went on to either fight directly in, or oversee in a senior capacity — as a general, as defense minister, and ultimately as Israel’s eleventh prime minister — every single war the modern state of Israel engaged in from the War of Independence in 1948 onwards for the next six decades.
The native-born Israeli didn’t simply engage on the military battlefield, however. He also waged epic diplomatic, political, legal, and media battles that are the stuff of legend.
But on Saturday, the warrior’s final battle ended.
At the age of 85, Sharon passed away at 1:55 p.m. local time, while close family and friends gathered around his bedside to say their farewells.
A funeral will be held on Monday. Israel’s top leadership will attend the memorial service, as will Vice President Joe Biden, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and former British prime minister Tony Blair, among other world leaders.
Now the war to define him and his legacy will begin.
“The state of Israel bows its head over the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon,” said current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a long-time rival, in a warm and generous statement. “His memory will forever be held in the heart of the nation . . . . Sharon played a central role in the struggle for Israel’s security throughout its existence. He was, first and foremost, a courageous fighter and a distinguished general, one of the greatest commanders the IDF has ever known.”
The Arab-Israeli Wars
Born near Tel Aviv on February 26, 1928, Sharon was the son of Russian immigrants. He was raised a staunch Zionist, believing Jewish history gave his people the right to have a state of their own in the land of the Bible.
At 20, he fought with distinction in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. In the 1956 war, he battled Egyptian forces at the Mitla Pass. During the Six Day War of 1967, he led Israeli armored forces against the Egyptians in the Sinai.
But the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973 was the turning point. Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a nearly catastrophic sneak attack on Israel, on Judaism’s holiest day of the year. Israeli political leaders had not seen the war coming, and many feared their country was about to be lost. Yet amidst the fog of an unexpected war, Sharon kept his cool. Against the judgment of many of his fellow commanders, some of whom argued bitterly with him, he led Israeli tank units on a daring middle-of-the-night maneuver across the Suez Canal. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off. Sharon stunned, encircled and then defeated the Egyptian Third Army. What’s more, he was poised to conquer the city of Ismailia, not far from Cairo, but the U.N. declared a cease-fire and Sharon’s forces had to stop advancing.
“Our [armored] division is the one that initiated and took upon itself the most difficult, most complex and cruel part of the war — the operation of the crossing the Canal,” Sharon later wrote in Warrior. “This crossing operation is the turning point of the war. The crossing of the Canal is the operation that brought the victory in the war. We must remember that the victory in the Yom Kippur War is the greatest victory we ever had. If — albeit omissions and mistakes, albeit failures and failings, albeit loss of composure and self-control — we have achieved our victory, we should know that this is the greatest victory of the IDF ever. We fought. Hundreds of our best soldiers have fallen in the battlefield and many more were wounded during combat, but we have won.”
The 1973 war was one of the high points of his military career. Overnight, Sharon became a national hero.
The 1982 war, however, was widely considered his lowest point.
As defense minister, Sharon designed and presided over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The mission was to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization, responsible for a seemingly never-ending series of terrorist attacks against Israel’s northern towns and villages. Yet what was supposed to be a lightning-fast incursion ended up bogging down the IDF inside Lebanon for the next 18 years. Sharon was forced to resign after Lebanese militia forces massacred hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, near Beirut, and Sharon was widely blamed for not taking proper steps to prevent such unconscionable attacks.
The War with Time Magazine
In 1983, amidst a barrage of hostile press coverage, Sharon went to war again. He filed a $50 million lawsuit against Time magazine, claiming the publication had not only outright lied about his conduct during the Lebanon war, but had libeled him as well by claiming he had conspired with Lebanese militia leaders to cause the horrific massacres at Sabra and Shatila, two Palestinian refugee camps outside of Beirut.
“There comes a moment, I thought, when you have to turn and fight,” he wrote in his memoirs. “My family was suffering, I was being assaulted and traduced from every corner. I felt like I was being pursued by a pack of wild dogs. The time had come to put an end to it.”
In January 1985, Sharon won the lawsuit against Time. Though the jury did not award him any monetary damages, they did strongly reprimand the media giant.
“A meticulous jury has found Time magazine negligent and careless in printing a false and defamatory report about Gen. Ariel Sharon of Israel,” noted a New York Times editorial. “After deliberating five days on the most crucial question, the jury found no malice. . . . The jury found an absence of malice, but no shortage of arrogance. It went out of its way to reprimand Time for ‘negligently and even carelessly’ defaming the general. It seemed to give voice to widespread discontent with influential media that are quick to dish out criticism but unwilling or reluctant to present a contrary judgment or to confess error.”
The War with the Likud Party
I will always remember being stunned when I heard the news that “Arik” Sharon had suffered a massive stroke and lapsed into a coma.
It was January 2006. My wife and kids and I were living in Cairo. I was working on a non-fiction book (Epicenter) about the future of Israel and the Middle East, and I didn’t see Sharon’s sudden demise coming.
The legendary strategist had become a titan on the Israeli political stage.
He had outmaneuvered his arch-rival Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu for control of the Likud party, after Bibi had lost the 1999 election to Ehud Barak.
Then he dominated headlines in the fall of 2000 by striding across the Temple Mount and declaring the site — and all of Jerusalem — under Jewish sovereignty, never to be divided or given away to create a Palestinian capital. It was a move Arafat claimed was the triggers for a horrific wave of anti-Israeli suicide bombings and other terror attacks that became known as the “Second Intifada.” But it galvanized support behind Sharon who believed Jerusalem should never be divided to create a Palestinian state.
In early 2001, Sharon announced his campaign to become prime minister. He launched a ferocious political war against Barak, and crushed him (62 percent to 37 percent) in one of the greatest electoral landslides in modern Israeli history.
As prime minister, Sharon then stunned the world, his nation, and his own political party. He announced that he was going to unilaterally withdraw Israel Defense Forces from the Gaza Strip, forcibly remove Israeli settlers living on farms in northern Gaza, and give the disputed Gaza territory to the Palestinian people without requiring them to sign a peace treaty.
The man who had long opposed the “land for peace” formula — who had refused even to vote in favor of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan (voting instead to “abstain”) — was now about to give up land for nothing.
Two of his most prominent Cabinet members resigned in protest.
Natan Sharansky left first. Calling the move a “tragic mistake,” the famed Russian dissident (who at the time was serving as minister of Jerusalem and diaspora affairs) said he could no longer serve a government that would unilaterally turn over Gaza to Israel’s sworn enemies without getting anything tangible much less valuable in return, and without insisting upon democratic reform within Palestinian society. What’s more, Sharansky said he was deeply disappointed by Sharon’s refusal to allow a national referendum on the withdrawal plan before its implementation.
Later, Netanyahu left, as well. Stepping down as finance minister, Netanyahu warned that Gaza would become “Hamastan,” a new base camp of terror. He said Sharon’s move would allow the Palestinian terrorists to rearm themselves, and argued that by giving up Israeli control of the Philadelphi Corridor along the Gaza–Egyptian border, a new pipeline for arms and bombs coming into the radical Islamic terror cells would be created.
Sharon refused to listen. He had set a course, and he was not to be deterred. On August 17, 2005, the unilateral withdrawal took place.
That fall, Sharon declared war on his own political party, the Likud party. He bolted the party that had been his home since the 1970s, and created a new, centrist party, he called it “Kadima” (which in Hebrew means, “Forward”).
Soaring in the polls, Sharon seemed an unstoppable force. Then personal tragedy befell him. He suffered a minor stroke in December 2005, and then was felled by a much larger episode in January 2006. He never recovered.
Much will be written about the Sharon legacy in the days and years ahead, as well it should. He was a larger than life figure who had an enormous influence on the modern state of Israel and its enemies. It will take some time to sort out his legacy. In the meantime, whatever you thought of him personally, let us be praying for his family and friends to have comfort. They loved him dearly, and are grieving his loss.
— Joel C. Rosenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books about Israel and the Middle East. His latest is Damascus Countdown. This post has been corrected since posting. It originally cited 2001 as the year Warrior was released; that was the year of a re-release.