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Ariel Sharon (1928-2014)

Ariel Sharon – the 11th prime minister of Israel, and a man who dominated the Jewish state’s political scene first as a pertinacious force from the right and eventually as a heterodox diplomat who oversaw broad Israeli territorial concessions – died today, eight years after slipping into a coma in the aftermath of a massive stroke. He was 85.

Sharon’s decades-spanning career was marked by periods of deep controversy and widely acknowledged acclamation, and was book-ended by grave wounds acquired on the battlefield of the War of Independence and by political power secured via successive Israeli elections. His final political years, as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, will be remembered as ones marked by sweeping counter-terror operations followed by arguably even more sweeping peace gestures.

Sharon was elected amid a terror war that Palestinian figures at the time boasted had been months if not years in the planning, and which had finally erupted after Palestinian President Yasser Arafat refused a July 2000 peace offer from Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak. Analysts emphasized at the time that the violence, which would eventually take the lives of literally thousands, was suffocating the chances for peace.

Following a wave of suicide bombings – and immediately after the March 2002 attack on a Passover Seder in Netanya in which 30 people were killed – Sharon initiated Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield to uproot the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. The immediate aftermath saw a 46 percent drop in suicide bombings, and by the second half of the year a 70 percent drop.

In 2003 Sharon navigated the Likud party through legislative elections from which it emerged victorious, ensuring his continued tenure as prime minister. He would eventually split from the center-right Likud after securing and executing the politically controversial Disengagement plan – adopted in 2004 and enacted in 2005 – that removed all Israelis from the Gaza Strip and from four settlements in the West Bank.

Among others President George Bush and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan hailed the withdrawals for providing breathing room and territory to a nascent Palestinian state, though the move drained Sharon’s political capital and put him at odds with elements of the Israeli right.

Seeking to consolidate political and public support in the aftermath of the plan, Sharon formed a broad centrist party, Kadima, bringing in top figures from Israel’s center-left and center-right. In January 2006 – mere months after Kadima had been formed and amid Israeli elections that the newly formed party would eventually win – Sharon suffered a stroke and slipped into the coma from which he would not wake.

Sharon’s career spanned an arc from war hero to political force, and was marked throughout by criticism from both the right and left. During Israel’s 1948 war he was severely injured during the Battle of Latrun. He recovered and eventually became a general, and in the 1950s was tasked with leading raids into Jordan in the aftermath of terrorist attacks originating in that country. In 1973 he played a pivotal role in hurling back an Egyptian army that had been making steady gains after launching the surprise attack that started the war.

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[Photo: Golf Bravo / Wiki Commons]

In 1982, as Defense Minister, Sharon oversaw Operation Peace for the Galilee, which sought to uproot the state-within-a-state that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had built in southern Lebanon. The war ended with the PLO’s expulsion from the country, but also witnessed inarguably the most controversial episode in Sharon’s military career.

In September, 1982, as the IDF was working to clear terrorists out of Beirut, forces under Sharon’s command allowed Lebanese-Christian Phalangist militiamen into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps on the outskirts of the city. The numbers regarding the subsequent massacre that the Phalangists conducted are heavily disputed, and range from just over 750 to roughly 3,000 civilians. A subsequent commission of inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre, and more specifically found him culpable for failing to anticipate the likelihood that the Phalangists may commit atrocities (the Lebanese commander who is accused of ordering the killings had among other things seen his family and fiancee murdered by Palestinian fighters in the so-called Damour massacre six years prior).

The extent of Sharon’s culpability for the massacre remains contested – courts have ruled that TIME, for instance, falsely accused him of direct responsibility – but he was found by an Israeli commission to bear responsibility for the bloodshed and was forced to resign.

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[Photo: Government  Press Office / Flickr ]

Sharon took control of the Likud party in 1999, after then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost to a Labor slate headed by Ehud Barak. The outbreak of Palestinian violence that became known as the Second Intifada shook public faith in Barak’s government, and in 2001 Sharon emerged victorious from a contentious battle for the prime ministership.

If the Sabra and Shatila massacre marks Sharon’s most controversial military episode, a 2000 event near the outbreak of the Second Intifada may mark his most contentious political moment. Sharon has been blamed for triggering the half-decade of violence by taking a police-escorted walk along the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000. The area is of course contested – it is the holiest site in the world to Jews, and the third holiest to Muslims – and critics have claimed that the incident sowed the seeds for the years of Palestinian terrorism that followed.

Here the public record is far clearer in exonerating Sharon.

The July 2000 Camp David summit – hosted by Bill Clinton, with Barak and Arafat negotiating – had already failed. Arafat has been widely blamed for the talks’ collapse, including by Clinton. Palestinian figures later boasted that a wave of violence was in motion. Arafat had already released a number of high-ranking terrorists from jail by the time Sharon visited the Mount. American diplomat Dennis Ross recounts in his book The Missing Peace how the Israelis called Washington with proof that the Palestinians were “planning massive, violent demonstrations throughout the West Bank and the next morning, ostensibly a response to the Sharon visit.”

Washington pressured Arafat to dampen the violence, but the Palestinian leader – again per Ross – “did not lift a finger to stop the demonstrations, which produced the second Intifada.” Arafat, according to Ross, may have had a range of motives for letting the violence spiral out of control: “Some believe that after Camp David [Arafat] concluded that he could not achieve what he wanted through negotiations and therefore resorted to violence… Others believe he planned an escalation to violence all along… in accordance with the ‘Palestinian narrative,’ he needed Palestinian independence to result from struggle.”

Ariel Sharon died as one of Israel’s iconic figures, having remade Israel’s military and political landscape. His dedication to the Jewish state was grounded in a sense of history and a deeply felt need to create, nurture, and protect a refuge for Jews. At a Holocaust memorial ceremony in Germany in 2001, he recounted the fates of three Jewish children who left the Grunewald train station and – like “six million Jews… including 1.5 million children” never returned. Sharon declared that “it is the right of the Jewish people, after years of suffering and privation, to be the masters of our fate and to let no one control the fate of our people. We will preserve this right more than anything.”

[Featured Image: Jacob E / YouTube ]