Sharon's legacy of controversy
Israel's cabinet declared Tuesday that the prime minister was 'permanently incapacitated.'
Israel's cabinet declared Tuesday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was "permanently incapacitated" by a stroke that effectively ended his lifetime in the public eye - one that historians are likely to find hard to categorize.Skip to next paragraph
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The tail end of his tenure earned Mr. Sharon the sort of domestic and international respect he had not enjoyed for decades, first by pulling Israel out of Gaza in August after a 38-year occupation, and then by setting up his own party when the rightist Likud Party didn't want to go along with his vision for disengagement. But many who take a longer view remember a resume of warmaking, with Sharon's controversial moves often blurring the lines between defense and aggression.
Since he joined a military youth movement more than 60 years ago, Sharon has alternatively been described as brave and brutal, charming and aloof, cunning and clever, inspiring and intimidating. After a lifetime of waging war and then seeking some level of peace, there is one thing that Sharon's fans and foes can agree on: the man's nearly unstoppable determination to do whatever he deemed best for the sake of Israel's security.
His career, marked with controversy and contradictions - and most recently, congratulations for his decision to lead Israel through a historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip - came to a sudden halt after his stroke.
Sharon's is a history replete with quick, dramatic moves that inflicted heavy losses on his enemies. Born and raised as Ariel "Arik" Scheinerman in a pre-state agricultural community, Sharon never let critics get in the way of his drive to build an Israel that would survive amid hostile Arab neighbors. Scheinerman became Sharon upon the suggestion of David Ben Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, who helped groom Sharon from a fearless and feisty young platoon commander in the 1948 war into a major military leader.
Sharon, wounded during a famous battle in Latroun, was quickly promoted.
It was in those days, having led men in a difficult battle for Israel's creation at the age of 20, that Sharon came to some of his lifelong conclusions, says Uzi Benziman, a Haaretz journalist who wrote the only biography of Sharon authored by an Israeli. Sharon taught his troops that Jews must not remain passive targets, Mr. Benziman writes, and that Arab aggression must be returned tenfold.
Benziman's portrait of Sharon in "Sharon: an Israeli Caesar," is not particularly flattering: It documents a man who, from the early days of his career, often stretched or disregarded orders in order to inflict heavier casualties on the enemy, often without distinguishing between soldier and civilian. The teenage Sharon, Benziman says, used to carry a club to political meetings. Sharon didn't cooperate with Benziman - later writing his own autobiography - and Benziman says Sharon stopped speaking to him after the book was published in 1985.
But much of the controversy surrounding Sharon's life has by now become common knowledge. As an army major in 1953, for example, Sharon was put in charge of special operations "Unit 101," which was charged with carrying out reprisal attacks. On one occasion, after an Israeli woman and her two children were murdered, Sharon directed a raid on the Jordanian town of Kibya, in which 69 civilians were killed.
As Sharon's career progressed, many Israelis developed a sort of awe of him: a mix of concern that he was too keen to plunge into battle without regard to collateral damage, along with an impression that he instilled fear in Israel's enemies and always emerged victorious.
By 1967, having earned a law degree, Sharon was brigadier general - and led a division into the Six-Day War. By 1973, while serving as a member of the Knesset in the Likud Party he helped establish, Sharon resigned to return to military service in the Yom Kippur War. He commanded a reserve division and captured part of the Suez Canal. Some credited him for turning around what had begun to look like a losing battle. But a tribunal found that his decisions at the Suez violated orders, and he was dismissed - only to return in 1981 as defense minister, during which he led Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
By then, Sharon was either loved or despised. Either way, he seemed to inspire people to follow him.
When Yisrael Harel was a young sergeant in the Yom Kippur War, he recalls, Sharon was a major general - and his paratrooper commander. Israel had suffered heavy losses on the Egyptian front, and many of the soldiers were lying in the trenches to take shelter.