Why Ariel Sharon looms so large in Israel

The headlines he's making reflect not a preoccupation with a dire medical outlook, but a national interest in the still-developing legacy of one of Israel's most controversial leaders.

Ariel Schalit/AP
A journalist waits for Zeev Rotstein, the director of Tel Hashomer hospital where the comatose former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon is being treated, to brief the media, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is making headlines again this week, as he was wont to do during more than half a century of military and civil service, during which he was both loathed and lionized.

But this time it’s not for the usual reason – a provocative move, sometimes in defiance of military orders or government policy, that more often than not changed the course of Israeli history.

After nearly eight years in a coma, those close to Mr. Sharon say his condition has deteriorated significantly and the old warrior may soon bid farewell to his family and countrymen.

Sharon has been out of the public sphere since early 2006, but he never fell out of public consciousness. The attention he is drawing now is not merely a preoccupation with his medical outlook, but reflects a national interest in the still-emerging legacy of one of Israel’s most controversial leaders.

Throughout his 60-plus years of work defending and leading the state of Israel, many saw Sharon as a bullheaded politician and inveterate violator of human rights – particularly those of Palestinians. Most infamously, a government-appointed commission of inquiry declared him indirectly responsible for the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

Sharon, then minister of defense, 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 at a time 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 steps necessary to protect them.

But few anticipated what would become perhaps the most defining yet enigmatic move of Sharon’s career: unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005, removing all Israeli soldiers and more than 8,000 Israeli settlers, dismantling an infrastructure of Israeli control in part of the Palestinian territories 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 last decade. 

Some called it a pragmatic Nixon-in-China moment, while others drew parallels with South African apartheid leader F.W. de Klerk’s release of Nelson Mandela from prison, paving the way for the end of apartheid and Mandela’s ascension to the presidency. Others say Sharon was under intense pressure from the US as well as criminal investigations at home, and gave away Gaza since it didn’t matter nearly as much as the West Bank, home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers.

While Sharon’s motives and consequent plans remain unclear – he fell into a coma five months after the Gaza withdrawal, amid intense national criticism of his decision – he still looms large in the Israeli national consciousness, the last leader from the 1948 generation.

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