Ariel Sharon, the 11th prime minister of Israel who served in that capacity from 2001 to 2006, suffered a serious stroke on Jan. 4, 2006, and had been incapacitated since.
But Sharon, whose name, Ariel, means “Lion of God” and was sometimes called “The King of Israel” – or “The Butcher of Beirut,” depending on who was doing the nicknaming – still had loomed large over the nation he was so instrumental in establishing.
Sharon will go down in history as one of Israel’s fiercest military warriors and a longtime hawk on security matters, but he will also be remembered for his controversial evacuation of Jewish communities from the Gaza Strip. To this day Israel continues to feel the devastating security consequences of the Gaza disengagement, which left the Islamist terror group Hamas in control of the border territory.
Aside from the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon was widely considered one of the greatest field commanders and military strategists in Israel’s history – and reviled as one of the worst of villains by Israel’s enemies. Sharon fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Suez War, the Six-Day War of 1967, the 1969 War of Attrition, the Yom-Kippur War of 1973, and served as Israel’s minister of defense during the 1982 Lebanon War.
Sharon’s policies both on and off the field of battle lent muscle to the fledgling Israeli state, which was surrounded by enemies on every side, yet survived its formative years no doubt in part because of Sharon.
For example, after Yasser Arafat rejected an Israeli offer of a Palestinian state at U.S.-brokered talks at Camp David in 2000, the PLO leader returned to the West Bank to launch his intifada targeting Jews.
Sharon, working with George Bush, reversed decades of Israeli and U.S. policy that treated Arafat as a moderate. Sharon used the Israel Defense Forces to isolate Arafat to a small wing of his compound in Ramallah, where the Palestinian leader lived under de facto house arrest until his death in 2004.
The Jewish Virtual Library says Sharon joined Haganah at age 14 in 1942 and during the 1948 war commanded an infantry company. He was named commander of a Paratroop Corps in 1956. He commanded an armored division in the 1967 conflict and again during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Even his opponents hailed him as “Ariel son of Shmuel … a biblical military hero no less than Jeroboam son of Yehoash or Joshua son of Nun.”
An online biography notes Sharon was nominated by Knesset Member Yoel Hasson for the Israel Prize in 2006. Hasson called Sharon “an outstanding soldier throughout the chain of command, the hero of the Yom Kippur War, an admired general, a Knesset member and minister for many years and one of the most popular prime ministers in the history of the State of Israel.”
Sharon was elected to the Knesset in 1973 but left shortly later to advise Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on security. He was elected to the legislative body again in 1977 and then was appointed minister of agriculture, followed by his move to the office of defense minister.
But in 1982, after a slaughter of hundreds or even thousands of mostly Palestinian refugees by Lebanese militia in Israeli-controlled Beirut, an Israeli commission found Sharon responsible for ignoring the threat of revenge killings, which indeed led to the massacre. Sharon was pressured into resigning as Israel’s minister of defense.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, Sharon carried out a program to build 144,000 apartments to absorb the flood of immigrants arriving from Russia.
While holding the office of foreign minister in the late ’90s, he met with U.S., European, Palestinian and Arab leaders to advance peace, including major work on a solution to the region’s need for water.
Following his visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, Palestinians led by Arafat released a wave of terrorism against Israelis even though a committee led by Sen. George Mitchell determined Sharon was not the cause of the violence.
He was installed as prime minister in 2001.
In that office, Sharon initiated a disengagement plan, during which thousands of Jews were deported from Gaza and northern Samaria – turning the once-fertile region over to Hamas-control.
He also played a key role when, in 1981, Israel sent fighter jets to destroy a nuclear plant in Iraq.
Sharon later wrote about the events, his concerns for a nuclear Arab state and ultimately, his thoughts on the success of the mission: “As a member of the Security Affairs Ministers Committee, now known as the Small Cabinet, I was of the opinion that we face a grave danger, and therefore was among those who pushed to strike the nuclear plant in Iraq. … From time to time I used to remind Menachem Begin of this issue, stressing how severe it was that an Arab state had a nuclear weapon. I did not concur with the opinion, which was expressed then by Shimon Peres, I think, that if both parties would have nuclear weapon, there would be a reciprocal deterrence. I said that I couldn’t rely on the discretion of Arab states if they had nuclear weapons. Soviet Union or the Unites States have a different set of considerations, and they are more responsible, even though the balance of terror always seemed dangerous to me. But I don’t trust Arab states, I have no idea how they would assess a given situation or what would bring them to use these weapons. I also explained that there was a danger that an Arab nuclear ‘umbrella’ would lead to an escalation of smaller scale actions against Israel, because Israel would refrain from responding to such actions in fear of the nuclear threat.”
He recalled the success of the mission: “We were in Prime Minister Begin’s house in Jerusalem when we received the news that the fighters returned safely and that they have bombed and destroyed the nuclear reactor. It was in Shavuot eve, June 1981. Joy and elation overwhelmed the ministers who were there with the prime minister. We left; Begin approached me, embraced me and said something in the lines of, ‘I want to thank you. The position you took had a great influence on my decision.’ In my opinion this is one of the most daring decisions any government ever took. It is something in the scale of the decisions Ben Gurion used to take.”
Those who follow the prophecies of Israel noted that Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, a much-venerated spiritual leader, had said the long-awaited Messiah would not come until after the death of Sharon. He made the prediction two months before Sharon, still acting as prime minister, had a major stroke in 2006 that left him in a coma.
Sharon’s collapse six weeks before his 78th birthday was so sudden and complete that doctors at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem advised his family that he should be allowed to die. Yet advanced medical care allowed him to live another eight years and receive daily visits from his two sons, Gilad and Omri.
While his injury was considered permanent, Gilad, wrote that, “He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly. Large, strong, self assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he’s awake, he looks out with a penetrating stare.”
The two brothers were steadfast in their insistence their father must be kept alive, saying, “I would never be able to forgive myself if we did not fight to the end.”