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