Jerusalem – The news this week that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 85, was near death sparked accolades and criticism, as well as speculation over what path he might have taken had he remained healthy. Sharon died on Saturday at 85.
Incapacitated by a massive stroke eight years ago that forced him out of office as prime minister and left him in a coma, Sharon was a complex man renowned for his personal bravery and bull-headedness, but also the ability to dramatically change course when he felt it was in Israel’s best interests.
Writing in Haaretz, columnist Chemi Shalev called Sharon “a natural improviser, supremely adaptable to changing circumstances, capable of swift and dramatic changes in his policies and approach.” Throughout his military and political careers, “Sharon only played by the rules that he himself had set. He was the quintessential political maverick, defying convention, bucking party discipline, unashamedly reversing course in midair if it seemed to serve his purpose. And he never lacked for audacity or courage, on the battle field or in the Knesset, as even his critics admit.”
Like former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon was a beloved field commander who played a central role in many of the country’s key battles, both on and off the battlefield. And like Rabin, Sharon became convinced that relinquishing hard-won territory would benefit Israel strategically.
Sharon’s admirers remember him as a legendary commander who, despite being a leader in the settlement-building movement, nonetheless dismantled settlements in Sinai and Gaza, and quit the right-wing Likud to create the centrist Kadima party.
His detractors say Sharon abandoned the settlements and that the vacuum he left in Gaza paved the way for a Hamas takeover and years of rocket attacks. They also blame him, at least indirectly, for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Maronite Christian militias in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the Lebanon war in 1982.
Michael Feige, a professor of sociology at Ben-Gurion University, said Sharon “worked according to his own instincts and understanding. He was a bulldozer in the sense that he was seen as someone who can move mountains and build settlements and bypass bureaucracy.”
At the same time, Feige said, “he was known as a destructive bulldozer, and not only due to the destruction of the Yamit and Gush Katif settlements, but also for the Lebanon War,” when an independent investigation concluded Sharon could have done much more to prevent the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. He was forced to step down as defense minister soon afterward.
Feige believes that had Sharon continued to lead the country, he would not have continued to dismantle settlements, at least not on a large scale.
“People grow nostalgic and think the disengagement was a peace initiative, but it was not. Sharon left Gaza in the context of the Second Intifada,” when deadly attacks against settlers and soldiers were frequent.
Feige said Sharon pulled out of Gush Katif “because he didn’t want the army to be inside Gaza, and to protect small settlements. It was a tactical move, not a peace initiative. I don’t think he would have acted much differently from [Prime Minister] Netanyahu. Sharon was very suspicious of the Palestinians.”
Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Bir Zeit University and former Palestinian government spokesman, agrees that Sharon was no peacenik.
“I don’t think he ever intended pulling out from the West Bank,” Khatib told The Media Line. “He was clear in saying that he is pulling out of Gaza in order to consolidate Israeli control and settlement presence in the West Bank.”
Nor does Khatib believe Sharon would have brokered a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“He was always right wing and always supportive of the continued Israeli control over historical Palestine including the West Bank and especially Jerusalem,” Khatib asserted.
While no one can say what Sharon might have accomplished had his health not deteriorated, even those who differed with him recognize the many contributions he made to the country and its security.
“I vehemently disagreed with the decisions that Ariel Sharon made towards the end of his career, but I will forever respect the daring and innovative military leader who spared no effort in defending his people, Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon told The Jewish Week. “Arik fought valiantly on behalf of the nation of Israel in all our wars since 1948. The contributions that he made towards the safety and security of the country he loved will never be forgotten.”
Sharon was also on the minds of many ordinary Israelis this week.
“I think his story has two parts,” said Shachar, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat who works in a hat store. She declined to provide her last name.
“On the one hand he weakened the country by uprooting settlements, which created a vacuum and increased terrorism from Gaza,” she said. “But on the other hand he did a lot of good things in the years before the disengagement and they shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Chantal Cohen, who works in a store in a Jerusalem industrial area, said she appreciates Sharon’s heroism, and also his personality.
“I really liked Ariel Sharon, the man, even when I didn’t agree with his politics. He had a great deal of charisma and exuded happiness, and he was a great leader, not an extremist.”
Cohen, who described herself as a diehard Likud supporter, said she admired Sharon’s ability to act on his principles “even though I’m not in favor of territorial compromise. Israel needs to remain whole,” she insisted.
Had Sharon lived, Cohen said, “he might have regretted leaving Gaza, but we’ll never know.”
Mili Chaim-Dayan, who is employed in a nearby furniture store, thinks that, had he not fallen ill, Sharon would have taken a harder line than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Palestinian terrorism, and would have resisted U.S. demands for Israeli concessions.
“Netanyahu is much more influenced by the U.S.,” Chayim-Dayan asserted. “ I’m pretty sure Sharon wouldn’t have released 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, and that he would have fought back sooner against the rockets the Palestinians are shooting from Gaza. If Sharon were in charge I think the Palestinians would think twice before attacking us.”
The bottom line, she said, “Is that Sharon made us feel safe. I miss that.”