Sharon's Lessons For Israel

Time to Finish What He Started

Ariel Sharon on the outskirts of Mevessert Zion, west of Jerusalem, 2005.
Ariel Sharon on the outskirts of Mevessert Zion, west of Jerusalem, overlooking a part of the controversial Israeli barrier between him and Har Adar, November 8, 2005. (Jim Hollander / Courtesy Reuters)

He started out as a private in Israel’s 1948 war for independence -- and ended up as his country’s prime minister. He was a real hawk who voted against the 1978 peace agreement with Egypt -- but ended his public career by withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. He was a man among men, with a strong body, an iron will, and steely nerves that did not desert him even under the most intensive fire; but he spent the last seven years of his life unconscious, helplessly kept alive by machines.

Ariel Sharon, originally Ariel Scheinermann, was born in 1928, the son of a farmer. At the age of 20, he fought in the Israeli army during the war of independence and was wounded. Unable to walk, he was carried to safety on the shoulders of a comrade who had gone blind. Telling the story years later, he explained that he was not yet as big as he later became.

In 1950, he left the army to study law but returned to the military three years later to set up a new commando unit. Its task was to strike into the neighboring countries, mainly Jordan and Egypt but occasionally Syria as well, through which terrorists crossed into Israel. He quickly proved an effective, if brutal, commander. He repeatedly exceeded his orders, killing far more Arabs (civilians included) than his superiors had planned and causing international outrage. In the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian war, he commanded an elite infantry brigade. He steered his troops through the strategic Mitla Pass against explicit orders and suffered one-quarter of all Israeli casualties in that campaign, a fact that almost brought his career to an end. He was given a division to command during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of June 1967. With it, he launched a model operation that captured the strongest Egyptian fortifications in the Sinai and is still being studied around the world. Appointed head of Israel's Southern Command in 1970, he put down a Palestinian uprising in Gaza and then retired three years later, took up farming, and ultimately became a very wealthy man.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis