Israel said farewell to one of its most remarkable citizens on Monday.
Ariel Sharon will be remembered as one of the most influential and interesting characters in Israel’s history. A towering figure in both the military and politics, Sharon leaves behind an immense legacy in both arenas. Like him or loathe him though, did you really know him?
Sharon was a man that epitomised Israel’s very survival. The son of a Jewish immigrant family, he served his beloved Israel with great distinction in each of the wars that came to shape and define a nation.
Ariel Sharon began his military career in 1948 as a young commander of a platoon in the Alexandroni Brigade of the IDF. Drawing domestic and international recognition for his tactical leadership in the Six Day War, Sharon cemented his reputation as a heroic and exceptional military commander during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when he played a critical role in the IDF’s decisive crossing of the Suez Canal during Israel’s counter-attack against Egypt.
Highly decorated for his military service, Sharon entered Israel’s political scene in 1973 and succeeded in holding nearly every senior government post, including Prime Minister of Israel.
Famed for his unrelenting determination and defiance, Sharon was however never far from controversy. Most infamously, his reputation was marred in 1983 when a commission of inquiry found the then Defence Minister was responsible for failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinian refugees committed by Phalangist Christian militias in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps. A stain on Sharon’s distinguished career but a positive reflection of the way in which Israel responds to such events.
Sharon’s infamous visit, in September 2000, to the holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is remembered worldwide as a factor in triggering the Second Intifada.
Shortly afterwards however, elected as a Likud Prime Minister in 2001 in a landslide victory, his vast experience as one of Israel’s finest soldiers clearly impacted his decisions as Prime Minister. Israel’s citizens collectively turned to Sharon during the bloody Second Intifada, their greatest hour of need, and in turn Sharon felt the weight of responsibility of a whole nation to bring about an end to the terrible bloodshed.
For all his military achievements, Sharon should best be remembered for his remarkable political journey from unshakable, immovable hawk to peace-seeking pragmatist.
As Prime Minister, he came to understand the importance of two-states for two-people, recognising it as the only way to ensure Israel’s long-term security. He dramatically reached out to Israel’s Palestinian neighbours in a call for reconciliation and compromise that nobody could have foreseen years earlier.
To this end, he made immense political sacrifices, all the while convincing Israel’s population of the need to make difficult compromises in the interests of peace. At the height of his influence in 2005, Sharon oversaw Israel’s complete and unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, when 5000 Israeli settlers were withdrawn from the area.
As a lifelong supporter of settlement expansion and the concept of a ‘Greater Israel’, Sharon’s decision took many in Israel and around the world by surprise. Abandoning the Likud Party soon after, he formed a centrist movement called Kadima, which focused on further territorial withdrawal and committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. He paved the path for mainstream recognition of a future Palestinian state among the Right in Israel and changed the Likud Party’s position on this once and for all.
Israelis today will forever be left to wonder whether a peace agreement with the Palestinians may have been signed, had he not suffered such a debilitating stroke. By all accounts, the former warrior was preparing to complete his political transformation with a planned unilateral withdrawal from two-thirds of the West Bank: ensuring a strong and prosperous state for the Jewish people in part of their historic homeland. It was then that Sharon suffered the severe stroke from which he would never recover.
Throughout his life of ups and downs, Ariel Sharon retained an unshakable love for his people and his country. A prominent hard-line voice over the decades, he ended up utterly transforming Israel’s mainstream centre-right.
That to most will be his defining legacy. He will be remembered as a man who went on a journey. A journey that without a doubt re-defined the way in which every Israeli – politician or regular citizen, of the left or of the right – thinks about the peace process, and the future of the Jewish state of Israel. Sharon’s is a legacy that the world will see entrenched in Israeli politics forever more.