Ariel Sharon, the general and prime minister who embodied the Zionist notion of the new Jew — a robust man, adept with both plowshare and sword, and feared, hated, and adored for his proficiency with the latter, is dead. He was 85 years old.
Doctors at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer said that Sharon, who had been in a vegetative state for eight years, had suffered renal failure in recent days, which led on Saturday afternoon to multiple organ failure and death.
On January 4, 2006, while serving as prime minister, just two-and-a-half months shy of elections that he was expected to win in a landslide, Sharon suffered a devastating stroke and never recovered.
He is survived by his older sister Dita, his two living sons, Omri and Gilad, his daughter-in-law Inbal, and his six grandchildren.
Sharon, as both military leader and prime minister, was the man to whom the Israeli public looked in its hours of need, yearning for the protection he provided and cognizant of the consequences it sometimes entailed. As Ari Shavit wrote in a piercing profile in the New Yorker in 2006, Israelis turned to Sharon in the 1950s, during the devastating fedayun raids; as they did on Yom Kippur 1973, when even the defense minister was said to have feared the “fall of the Third Temple”; and yet again, most overwhelmingly, during the savagely bloody days of the Second Intifada.
He was defense minister during the 1982 Lebanon War and was found to bear personal responsibility for failing to prevent the Phalangist massacre of Palestinian Muslims in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Early in his career, in October 1953, he led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya in response to a terror attack in Israel. Forty two houses were detonated in the raid and 69 people were killed. In the field with his troops, Sharon had a reputation for pushing the license and limits of his orders to the maximum.
Toward the end of his political career, he was welcomed into the mainstream. In August 2005, he presided over the withdrawal from Gaza, uprooting some 24 settlements in total and irrevocably severing his ties with the settlement movement that he had an instrumental role in founding.
Three months later, on November 21, 2005, Sharon announced his departure from Likud, the party he had co-founded in 1973. A reporter asked at the press conference why he thought he would succeed where so many others had failed, with a centrist party. He laughed — even his greatest detractors admitted that he could be charming — and said: “Planning is something a lot of people know how to do, but executing, as you know, far fewer, far fewer.”
Sharon was born, on a rainy February 26, 1928, to a violin-playing agronomist father and a legendarily tenacious mother.
His father, Samuil Scheinerman, was from Brest-Litovsk and had been raised a Zionist. His father’s father, Mordechai, had been best friends with Menachem Begin’s father, and the two had broken down the door of the local synagogue when the rabbi refused to hold a memorial for Theodor Herzl. Mordechai’s wife, Miriam, was a midwife: she birthed Menachem Begin.
Moshe Dayan famously said of his generals that he preferred to restrain war horses than “prod oxen who refuse to move.” Sharon, though, proved difficult to contain.
Sharon’s mother, Vera Schneerof, from the tiny Belarussian village of Halavenchichi, was a reluctant Zionist. Her dream was to be a doctor. But in 1921, with the Red Army advancing on Tiflis, she hastily married Samuil, dropped out of medical school, and set sail for Palestine.
Gilad Sharon, in his 2011 memoir, “The Life of a Leader” (full disclosure: this reporter translated the book into English), had this to say of his grandmother Vera: “Because of her slanting eyes, her size, and her strength, both physical and predominantly mental, she always seemed to me a descendant of Genghis Khan. Every time there was some mention of her ancestry, I’d make galloping noises for my father, by drumming on the table. Everyone in the house knew what that sound meant: Mongolian horsemen, thousands of them, galloping on their short horses across the Russian plain. Short, strong, and determined, they ride with eyes narrowed against the wind. Nothing deters them, nothing stops them. Between their saddle and their horse’s back they store a piece of meat, softened by the friction and the horse’s sweat. All this came to mind when I saw my beloved grandmother.”
She slept with a firearm beneath her bed until age 80.
Arik’s father, Samuil, who was an outcast in the cooperative farming village of Kfar Malal, left careful instructions in his will: He did not want his body taken to the cemetery in the village truck; instead, Arik should use the family pickup. He didn’t want any of his neighbors eulogizing him, either.
A soldier of valor and controversy
In the summer of 1945, Sharon took part in the Haganah’s squad leader training course, far from the eyes of the British, deep in the desert. He thought he had done well but his commanders graduated him with the rank of “probationary corporal.”
That status was erased during the war.
Shortly after the November 29, 1947 vote that authorized the partition of Palestine, Sharon, then still known as Scheinerman, led a company of troops through the mud and heavy rain to the outskirts of Bir Addas, an Arab village that was host to Iraqi troops. They exchanged fire but the call to charge on the Israeli side never came. Sharon led his men forward regardless. He was ultimately given complete command over the platoon in a sign of things to come.
General Sharon, as he was often known abroad, never went to officer’s school.
He was, however, a gifted commander. In 1967, he planned the IDF’s first divisional battle, against the Abu Agheila stronghold in the Sinai, completely on his own; till today, the battle is taught in military academies across the world.
During the Yom Kippur War, he led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal, breaking the back of the Egyptian offensive. As his troops encircled Egypt’s Third Army, Sharon, a reserves officer at the time, instructed them to plant Israeli flags on the high ground, so that the Egyptians would look back across the water and see that they were trapped.
Sharon, known to all as Arik, did not need to have orders spelled out for him. In 1952, Moshe Dayan asked him “to see” whether it would be possible to capture Jordanian soldiers and exchange them for Israeli POWs. That same day, without being told, Sharon rounded up a friend and a pickup truck and drove down to the Jordan River. He waded into the water, pretended to inquire about missing cows, and promptly disarmed two Jordanian soldiers. He cuffed and blindfolded them, and drove them back to headquarters in Nazareth, his friend Shlomo Hever riding on the sideboard with a pistol aimed at their heads. When they arrived, Dayan was out. Sharon left him a note: “Moshe — the mission is accomplished, the prisoners are in the cellar. Shalom. Arik.”
Dayan, who recommended him for a citation after that mission, famously said of his generals that he preferred to restrain war horses than “prod oxen who refuse to move.” Sharon, though, proved difficult to contain. In 1956, during the Suez War, he stretched his orders to the maximum and beyond, when he sent paratroopers into the Mitla Pass, engaging in a gruesome and unnecessary face-to-face fight with the Egyptian soldiers who were dug into the craggy mountain side. The mission resulted in 38 Israeli deaths and cemented a lifelong feud with future chief of the General Staff Motta Gur.
In the aftermath of the Suez War, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote of Sharon in his journal: “The lad is a thinker, an original. Were he to be weaned of his fault of not speaking the truth in his reports he would make an exemplary military leader.”
Ben-Gurion, nonetheless, supported Sharon throughout his military life. In 1953, after the unintentional massacre in Qibya, the elder statesman kindly changed the young major’s name from Scheinerman to Sharon, reassuring him that what is important is “how it will be looked at here in this region,” to which Sharon remarked in his 1989 autobiography, tellingly entitled “Warrior,” “I couldn’t have agreed with him more.”
Despite Ben-Gurion’s persistent backing — he told military historian Uri Milstein that Sharon was “the greatest field commander in the history of the IDF” – and Sharon’s stunning tactical successes in the Six Day War, he was eventually pushed out of the army — after many previous attempts — on July 15, 1973.
Battles on the home front
Sharon was a family man. In stark opposition to many other Israeli generals and leaders, he was not a womanizer. Throughout his life, even as prime minister, he always rose to his feet when a woman entered the room. But in mid-life, over the span of five-and-a-half years, his personal life was ripped to shreds.
He first saw his wife, Margalit (Gali) Zimmerman, through the bright green leaves of an orange grove during the waning days of the British Mandate in Palestine. She was 16 and wore braids and was planting in the field of the dormitory school she attended. Sharon wrote in his autobiography that he had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. By the time he pulled himself from his reverie, the water in his irrigation ditch was at his knees.
Several years after the War of Independence, they eloped. A rabbi friend of Sharon’s married them with no friends or relatives in attendance. Nine years later she was dead, killed in a car crash, on the way to her job as a psychiatric nurse in Jerusalem.
Their son, Gur, was five years old. The boy grew gaunt and frail and acquired “a hollow” look to his eyes. Slowly he recovered. “It was a remarkable experience watching him regain his strength, as if sorrow had reached to the depths and had broken on some inner strength it found there,” Sharon wrote.
Gali’s sister, Lily, stepped into the void. In Uzi Benziman’s highly critical biography, “Sharon: an Israeli Caesar,” the author cited anonymous sources who contended that Sharon and Lily had been having an affair, and that Gali was driven to take her own life. That claim remains unsubstantiated. The two raised Gur together after Gali’s death, fell in love and had two more children, Omri and Gilad.
But on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1967, tragedy struck once again. Gur, age 10, saw that his father was busy on the phone, snapped him a playful salute and went out to the yard to play. Moments later, Sharon heard a gunshot. He ran to the yard. His youngest, Gilad, not yet a year old, was in the play pen; Omri, 3, stood by his side; and Gur was splayed out on the grass. He and a friend had been playing with an antique rifle. They had apparently loaded it with gun powder and a piece of metal. “I had seen so many wounds in my life; no one had to tell me that this one was hopeless,” he wrote. He bundled him in his arms and waded out into the street to catch a ride to the hospital. In the back seat of the car, Gur died in his arms.
In his memoir, Gilad Sharon wrote that his father once said, “The pain’s intensity is not diminished by the years; it’s only the intervals between the stabbings that grow longer.”
Lily Sharon, Arik’s beloved wife, who died in March 2000, is quoted in the 2006 biography “Ariel Sharon: A Life” [also translated by this reporter] as saying, “Arik never got over it. He just learned to live with it.”
Political engagement… and disengagement
Sharon founded the Likud. But he spent his first decade in politics serving under Menachem Begin. The two could not have been more different: lawyer and farmer, ideologue and pragmatist. When they first met in 1969, with Sharon still in uniform and looking for a way into politics, he was awed by Begin’s “extraordinarily powerful presence” and admitted to breaking into a cold sweat when they spoke.
Pragmatic Zionism, to which Sharon ardently subscribed, is based on “facts on the ground: reclaim another acre, drain another swamp, acquire another cow…don’t talk about it, just get it done.” This was the attitude with which he built the settlement enterprise, and this was the attitude that enabled him to dismantle it
During the peace talks with Egypt, their differences rose to the surface. Begin would agree only to Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank. Sharon, his son revealed in his 2011 memoir, was willing to grant them a state. “Better to have a Palestinian state on part of the territory than autonomy across all of it,” Gilad heard him say countless times. The terminology, he felt, was irrelevant. The word autonomy on a document could metamorphose into a state, but an internationally recognized Palestinian state, which seemed like a bigger achievement for Egypt, would have fixed borders, allowing Israel to maintain the areas crucial to its security.
Sharon felt that Begin, a political Zionist like Herzl and Jabotinsky, “was a man who believed in the power of words and legal terms and consequently he gave a high priority to such things as pronouncements, declarations and formal agreements,” he wrote in his autobiography. Pragmatic Zionism, to which Sharon ardently subscribed, is based on “facts on the ground: reclaim another acre, drain another swamp, acquire another cow… don’t talk about it, just get it done.”
This was the attitude with which he built the settlement enterprise, and this was the attitude with which he dismantled it.
Sharon admired Begin’s bravery, his decision to strike in Iraq, and his frugality — he once noted that there wasn’t so much as a single chair in Begin’s home that he trusted with his weight. But the Lebanon War and the subsequent committee of inquiry brought an end to their relationship. All Cabinet members save Sharon voted to accept the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut, or as it has become known, the Kahan Commission.
Months after his February 14, 1983 resignation from the post of defense minister, Sharon approached the prime minister and told him how his father had made him vow, decades earlier, that he would “never turn Jews over.” The vow was taken at a time when the Palmach was aiding the British in their battle against Begin’s Irgun and the other pre-state underground organizations. The period was known as the “saison” or hunting season. British police officers jailed and executed many of the underground fighters. “Menachem,” Sharon reportedly said in ’83, “it was you who handed me over to them. You are the one who did it.”
Sharon’s rise to the premiership, after years of backwater positions, began in earnest on September 28, 2000, when he came through the Mughrabi Gate and visited the Temple Mount. The so-called Al Aqsa, or Second Intifada ensued. Amid the bloodshed and the chaos, Ehud Barak stepped down, calling for new elections for prime minister. On February 6, 2001, Israelis chose Sharon over Barak by a 62%-38% margin. Dayan’s prediction from years earlier had come true: “You will have to wait for a crisis to come along,” he said to Sharon. “It’s only then that they will let you out.”
As prime minister, Sharon flattened the wave of rising Palestinian terror; threw himself heart and soul into a global campaign to sideline and delegitimize Yasser Arafat [perhaps his most successful campaign]; and, aided by the heinous events of 9/11 and a keen understanding of the American president, he maintained a strong relationship with then-president Bush and his administration.
In 2005, with the “Disengagement” from Gaza, he severed his ties to the settlement movement. Gush Emunim, the religious arm of the movement, Sharon once noted, had seen him as “the Messiah’s donkey,” or the beast upon which their salvation would arrive.
Several weeks later, he addressed the General Assembly on the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations. “I stand before you at the gate of nations as a Jew and as a citizen of the democratic, free, and sovereign State of Israel, a proud representative of an ancient people,” he said. “I was born in the Land of Israel, the son of pioneers — people who tilled the land and sought no fights — who did not come to Israel to dispossess its residents. If the circumstances had not demanded it, I would not have become a soldier, but rather a farmer and agriculturist. My first love was, and remains, manual labor; sowing and harvesting, the pastures, the flock and the cattle.
“I, as someone whose path of life led him to be a fighter and commander in all Israel’s wars, reach out today to our Palestinian neighbors in a call for reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict, and embark on the path that leads to peace and understanding between our peoples. I view this as my calling and my primary mission for the coming years.”
The man who for years had been scorned by the international community, depicted as a butcher and a blood thirsty leader, drew applause from all corners of the room.
Three and a half months later, before revealing the full extent of his future plans, he fell, terminally, from consciousness.