Israel bids farewell to Ariel Sharon, as it grapples with his divisive legacy

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon passed on today in Tel Aviv. But the intense debate over his leadership lives on, reflecting divergent visions for Israel, especially its settler movement.

By , Staff writer

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    Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visits the southern Israeli Bedouin town of Rahat in August 2004. Sharon, the hard-charging Israeli general and prime minister who was admired and hated for his battlefield exploits and ambitions to reshape the Middle East, died Saturday. The 85-year-old Sharon had been in a coma since a debilitating stroke eight years ago.
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Israel bid farewell today to the last – if perhaps most controversial – of its founding generation of leaders, former general and prime minister Ariel Sharon, who passed on after a long illness.

Mr. Sharon, who devoted more than 60 years of his life to establishing, defending, and leading the state of Israel, was both loathed and lionized by Israeli Jews. That chasm is perhaps most stark on the issue of Israeli settlement in territory conquered during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Sharon was instrumental in expanding the Jewish presence from a few outposts to cities and communities totaling more than half a million Jews today.

In what would become perhaps the most defining and controversial move of Sharon’s career, he unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, removing more than 8,000 Israeli settlers and dismantling an infrastructure of Israeli control that he had championed for decades. The images of Israeli soldiers dragging fellow Israelis out of their homes divided the country more deeply than any other government move in the past decade.  

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In the eyes of the peace camp, the 2005 Gaza pullout was a bold, pragmatic move. For those seeking to establish Greater Israel where the patriarchs and prophets once walked, however, it was an unthinkable act of betrayal. While Sharon may be gone, the controversy over Israel’s identity and destiny – put in sharp contrast by his Gaza withdrawal – is very much alive today, not least of all in the peace negotiations now under way.

The settler movement today commands outsized influence in Israeli politics, due in no small part to Sharon’s role in helping them to establish "facts on the ground." In recent weeks, legislators have put forward a spate of bills designed to protect Israeli claims to the West Bank, including one to annex the Jordan Valley. And Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party threatened to quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government if he agreed to a peace deal based on the pre-1967 lines dividing Israel and the West Bank.

But in Sharon’s eyes, the fight for Greater Israel was lost more than a decade ago and it was necessary to proactively cut Israel’s losses – a task that took on urgency not only because of growing international pressure but also because he saw himself as uniquely able to carry it out.

“Many times, he used to tell us that unfortunately [he] believed that he is the last Israeli leader who can look right into the eyes of the Israelis and to tell them, ‘Listen friends we had a dream, it didn’t work, it’s over, and now is the time to take some very painful decisions,’ ” says Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s former chief of staff. 

Whether Prime Minister Netanyahu has the will or political capital to carry out such decisions himself remains to be seen. At a 2003 Likud meeting in which Sharon faced intense criticism for agreeing to the Bush administration’s road map for peace with the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu was among those who were shocked by Sharon’s insistence that Israel must end the “occupation” of the West Bank – a word with strong negative connotations that he had steered away from using in the past.

“The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation – yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation – is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy,” Sharon said. “Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever.”

But as Sharon said himself, the prime minister’s chair offers a unique view that can cause even the most stubborn politicians to change their minds. “What you see from here, you don’t see from there,” he said, in his most famous explanation of his decision to withdraw from Gaza after decades of supporting the settler movement.

About-face

For years, Sharon had seen Israeli presence in Arab areas as a pillar of Israeli security, and helped settlers cut through government bureaucracy to build up their communities.

“Ideologues had great ideas, but some of them couldn’t set up a tent,” says Jonathan Blass, rabbi of Neve Tzuf, who has lived in West Bank settlements since 1975. “He was always Mr. Facts On The Ground. He was the person who would get things done.”

Sharon may not have shared the full ideology of the settler movement, especially those who saw it as fulfilling biblical prophecy, but his ideology of security dovetailed with their goals. He sometimes cut corners in his efforts to accelerate settlement expansion, and those benefited were content to look the other way.

But one of the lessons learned from Sharon’s 2005 decision, says Rabbi Blass, is not to tolerate a lack of integrity in political leaders just because they’re on your side. “Because someone who doesn’t follow the rules might – especially if he’s not deeply committed ideologically – might one day turn that same trait against you.”

“Put not your trust in princes,” said Sharon's former deputy Yaakov Katz, quoting from the Bible, when asked in 2009 how to explain the prime minister's about-face. Mr. Katz, one of the founders of the Gush Emunim settler movement, whom Sharon rescued from near death on the battlefield, went on to help his former commander more than double the number of Israelis living across the 1967 lines as his assistant in the ministry of housing and construction. “Since we are speaking about a human being, it is impossible to trust him, especially since we are dealing with someone who is not connected to Torah and has no fear of heaven.” 

Many settlers bitterly resent the 2005 Gaza “expulsion” as an undemocratic move that set a dangerous precedent and undermined their willingness to trust Israeli leaders’ assurances.

“He implemented a platform that was the exact opposite of what he ran on,” says Rabbi Blass. “Everyone says – great, courageous move. It was a horrible crime against democracy…. I think he trampled Israeli democracy to the point where it’s hard to recover.”

A brashness and ruthlessness that alienated many

It’s not only settlers who fault Sharon’s record on democratic values.

Many Israelis, not to mention Arabs, who referred to him as a butcher and a terrorist, saw Sharon as a bullheaded politician and inveterate violator of human rights, particularly those of Palestinians. Most infamously, a government-appointed inquiry declared Sharon (then minister of defense) indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila by Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel.

Sharon resigned his post. But in a remarkable political comeback, he climbed to the top echelons of government within two decades, winning the 2001 prime ministerial elections with 62.4 percent of the vote, the largest margin in Israeli history.

At the time, the second Palestinian intifada was in full swing. Many blamed Sharon for instigating the uprising with his provocative visit in September 2000 to the ultra-sensitive Temple Mount compound, home to the Al Aqsa mosque, though some Palestinian leaders have publicly said that his visit merely provided a spark for an uprising already being planned.

While the Israeli leader’s brashness and disregard for criticism alienated many, it also appealed to Israelis when they felt under siege. Sharon, who had always seized the offensive and prioritized Israel’s security interests above all else, was seen as a leader who would take the decisive, if controversial, steps necessary to protect them.

“You felt that you had steady experience, cautious hands at the helm,” says Prof. Meron Medzini of Hebrew University, who says that while Sharon was an extremely controversial figure, Israeli views have softened partly due to his long illness and partly due to a recognition that Israel did well under his premiership, ending the second Intifada and strengthening ties with America.

In Hebrew, Ariel means “lion of God,” and Sharon was one of the largest figures in Israel, praised for his courage if also feared for his strength and ability to attack his enemies. Whatever Israelis may feel about the man who was for decades at the frontlines of Israel’s battles with its neighbors, who strengthened its territorial claims and secured American commitment to preserve the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank, he is the last of Israel’s founding generation of leaders to bid his country farewell.

“He is the last link to the heroic or august days of the founding of the state,” says Professor Medzini, who worked with a number of prime ministers in Israel’s early days. “He represents both the beautiful face of Israel and some of the ugly face of Israel.”

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