Sharon's legacy of controversy
Israel's cabinet declared Tuesday that the prime minister was 'permanently incapacitated.'
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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.