Sharon's legacy of controversy

Israel's cabinet declared Tuesday that the prime minister was 'permanently incapacitated.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Sharon appeared, and people just got up and started walking, despite the shelling. It was like in the movies, the way he motivated people," Mr. Harel says. Sharon led them across the Suez Canal, a turning point of the war. "He's the kind of a man who inspires you," says Harel. "You feel that his presence has a lot of might."

Harel, a leader of the then-nascent movement to settle the West Bank and Gaza, worked with Sharon over the decade to come - the heyday of building in the occupied territories. Harel was one of the first Israelis to move to Ofra, a settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

Sharon was a major architect of the drive to place Jewish settlements throughout the territories, and even chose locations based on what he saw as their strategic value. While Minister of Trade and Industry from 1984 to 1990, and then as Minister of National Infrastructure from 1996 to 1998, Sharon succeeded in channeling resources and funds to the settlements, ignoring Palestinian and international criticism about the illegality of putting such "facts on the ground."

Yet Sharon gradually lost favor in the eyes of the settlers, once his most ardent supporters. Harel - who was the head of YESHA, the lobbying group representing settlers, through the 1980s and part of the 1990s - is one of many who grew to be deeply disappointed by Sharon's shift. For the settlers, Sharon lost his glow when he oversaw the evacuation of Yamit, the Israeli settlement in the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel left as part of its 1979 peace deal with Egypt. Last August's disengagement plan, pulling Israel out of the Gaza Strip and earning Sharon the international legitimacy he had never enjoyed, was viewed as a monumental betrayal. Harel, a right-wing columnist, argues that the disengagement and the construction of the West Bank barrier - two concepts originally opposed - have endangered security.

"The disengagement and the wall are putting Israel on the defense, because the terrorists see that Israel is shrinking and losing its confidence," Harel charges.

"We talked about it once or twice," he recalls. "I didn't convince him and he didn't convince me. He talked about it more philosophically ... in a kind of language that was not natural for him. He said the world was changing...."

In short, while Sharon had opposed the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords that attempted to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he had come to view the Israeli right's dream of a "Greater Israel" - precluding a Palestinian state - to be untenable. Demographic trends provided one of the strongest arguments: Arab birth rates were outpacing Jewish ones. If Israel had not pulled out of the Gaza Strip, Sharon reasoned, there soon would be more Arabs in areas under Israel's jurisdiction than Jews. In this scenario, many strategists concluded, Israel would have an even more difficult time solving the conflict and maintaining a one-man, one-vote democracy.

"Sharon was always the man ... to swim against the waves," says Harel of their recent conversation about disengagement. "And now he was saying, 'You have to take the waves and swim with them.' He was a different man than the one I knew."

Many people here - like others around the world - were amazed by Sharon's recent shifts. The same Sharon who led Israel in tough battles against Arab neighbors and who made security his raison d'être was forcibly removing 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. The same Sharon who once considered all Palestinians part of the Arab enemy was declaring, as he did at the 60th anniversary of the UN General Assembly last October, that they "are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own." Sharon said: "The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them."

Some observers say that Sharon was, above all, a pragmatic man. Professor Moshe Lissak, an expert on the relationship between Israeli society and the military, argues that Sharon didn't change his outlook on the Palestinians as much as he saw himself as the man to define and secure Israel's borders.

"He doesn't believe in the Palestinians as a partner and never did," says Mr. Lissak. To Sharon, the Palestinians were not mature enough as a nation to reach a peace deal. Instead, he took a classical Zionist outlook, which dictated that Israel should stake out boundaries and determine its security without relying too heavily on allies.

"You can say many things about Sharon, but he was not fanatic, he was not ultrareligious, and he was not messianic," says Lissak, although Sharon flirted with those sectors of society, and many saw the Six-Day War victory as a sign of divine redemption.

"Sharon was not motivated by spiritual inspirations: His only slogan is to do it yourself," says Lissak. And although Sharon might have once hoped that he could permanently secure all of the biblical land of Israel, realpolitick led him abandon that long before he became prime minister in 2001.

Of all chapters in Sharon's history, however, many in the region will always equate his name with the Lebanon war - in particular, the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. As defense minister, Sharon had driven the Israeli army north to invade Beirut, with the goal of expelling the PLO - then headed by Yasser Arafat. After the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, who had been elected Lebanon's president and was allied with Israel, his Christian Phalangist militiamen went into the remaining camps and killed hundreds of civilians. It later became clear that Sharon gave them permission to enter the camps. Sharon told a commission of inquiry that he thought it was going to be a "clean-up operation" of remaining terrorists, and that he didn't know that the Phalangists would randomly slaughter men, women, and children.

The accusations haunted Sharon. The Kahan Commission found him indirectly responsible and called for his dismissal. Sharon lost a libel suit against Time magazine, which implicated him, because he was unable to prove Time showed "reckless disregard for the truth." But Sharon later did win a suit against the magazine in Israel.

It is difficult to say whether Sharon changed the Israeli public - or vice-versa. But a key contribution, some here note, was his acknowledgment of the occupation - a term no right-wing politician had used in public until Sharon uttered it in a speech in 2003. Although he moved unilaterally, he made territorial concessions that no left-wing leader could have made.

"He was good at using the fog of combat: Not everyone knew where he stood, and it allowed him to maneuver politically on the issues," says Ambassador Dore Gold, Israel's UN representative from 1997-99 and a policy adviser to Sharon after he was elected premier in 2001. "People could see in him an entire Israeli left-wing agenda, and then people could see him advancing a conservative, hawkish agenda."

Sharon's political epitaph has been written many times. After his marginalization as an extremist, he made his way back into politics as a minister under Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister from 1996 to 1999. When Labor chief Ehud Barak's leadership faltered amid a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2000, Sharon made a controversial visit to one of Jerusalem's holiest sites: the Temple Mount to Jews and the Harem e-Sharif to Muslims. Riots spiraled into the second intifada, unleashing horrific bloodshed. In early 2001, Sharon was elected as prime minister.

Dr. Gold remembers election night. "Everyone was jumping up and down with his landslide victory, but he sat there calmly...." recalls Gold, now head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. "[T]his was someone who ... understood the gravity of the moment."

Some people close to Sharon say that his final years have been the most satisfying. He directed construction of the wall, believing that it was enormously effective in bringing down the number of suicide bombers. He strengthened ties with the US and saw the renewal of interest from Arab and other Muslim states in ties with Israel, from Tunisia to Pakistan. Dogged by criticism within his hard-line Likud party, he formed his own centrist party, Kadima. Senior politicians from left and right joined him.

"He was very confident that there is an opportunity now to advance the peace process based on the road map and to initiate changes in internal policy," says Eyal Arad, an adviser who had planned to run his reelection campaign. "He entered this new enterprise of Kadima with full force.... I'm sure that all he invested in Kadima will carry it over."

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