Sharon’s image transformed from bulldozer to grandfather of the nation

On Monday, Arik Sharon was buried next to his beloved wife Lily on Anemone Hill in the grounds of Sycamore farm, in the southern Israel. Described as a man who ‘had the quality of leadership in abundance’ by former Prime Minister and Middle East envoy Tony Blair, the death of Sharon marks the end of an incredible career which traced Israel’s history.

As well as being the family ranch and a fully functioning farm, Sycamore farm also hosts the late Israeli Prime Minister’s private archives. The archives, which include notes, letters and official documents, can be found in a discreet room behind the sheep pens. Only Sharon’s two sons have the key. These archives tell the story of a remarkable career.

A decade ago Sycamore farm was a happier place, full of the jovial banter that Sharon was renowed for. It was also the birthplace of Israel’s political Big Bang. In those days the country was unofficially run by the ‘Ranch Forum’ who would meet in the pantry, over long meals, including the ubiquitous 12 egg omelettes.

Here, a hybrid inner kitchen cabinet of savvy political advisers and PR supremos created the Kadima party. The Kadima party was Ariel Sharon’s response to the failure of both the left and right wing of Israeli politics and the latest attempt to forge a third way.

Controversial to some for his role in the Lebanon War, Sharon nonetheless oversaw profound events which continue to reverberate to this day – often confounding his critics on both left and right.

According to his critique, the left had failed after his predecessor Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered Yasser Arafat the most generous offer at Camp David which the latter rejected. The Palestinian response was the second intifada.

When Sharon took over as Prime Minister in 2001, Israel was reeling from the devastating phenomenon of suicide bombers, targeting Israel’s major cities.

Over 900 citizens would be killed, more Israelis than any other conflict since the war of Independence. After initially arguing ‘restraint is strength’, after a particularly vicious spell in 2002 in which 82 people were killed in one month, the army was sent into the Palestinian cities in an effort to root out the terrorist infrastructure.

This would come with a high cost to the Palestinians, cementing in their minds their antipathy towards him. Later that year his government began to build the security fence that significantly reduced the terrorists’ ability to enter Israeli population centres.

However along with zero tolerance for terror, Sharon would argue that the right wing had also failed. The dream of a greater Israel was over and it was important to offer the Palestinians a political horizon.

In 2003 he was the first Israeli Prime Minister to explicitly endorse a Palestinian state via the US sponsored ‘Roadmap for Peace’. The aim was to bring Israelis and Palestinians towards the ultimate goal of a comprehensive and permanent settlement of the conflict.

In 2005 Sharon implemented the Disengagement Plan, in which Israel uprooted all 21 of the Jewish settlements from the Gaza strip and another four from the West Bank. He faced bitter resistance and resentment inside his own Likud party which led to him quitting Likud and the founding of Kadima.

It has become commonplace during the past eight years to reflect on what Sharon may have said and done had he not been incapacitated.

When Edward Snowden released files revealing details of US hacking into the communications of various world leaders, the story was met with shrugs from Israeli figures.

One commentator recalled how Sharon used to fly to meet former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He would intentionally make a call back home to remark on the impressive buildings and developments in Cairo and heap praise on the president, knowing very well that the communication would be intercepted and Mubarak would be in a suitably generous mood when talks began.

When Sharon fell into his coma, Kadima was riding high in the polls, on the expectation of implementing a second withdrawal from the West Bank. Sharon and the Ranch Forum had successfully transformed his image of a no nonsense bulldozer to the grandfather of the nation.

Richard Pater is a political analyst and commentator based in Israel. He is also the director of BICOM in Israel

About the Author
Richard is a political analyst and the Director of BICOM in Israel (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre)
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