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.

When war broke out the year Sharon retired, he was recalled to lead a division against the Egyptians. He did so with great success, crossing the Suez Canal into Egypt proper. It was, however, anything but easy. His subordinates gratefully remember the steadying effect of his voice on the radio amid the chaos of exploding shells, the smell of burning vehicles, and the screams of the wounded. Maybe it was to help calm them that he always kept some flowers on his desk. Much later, in front of 120 students and myself, he said that the war had been “great fun.”

By 1974, Sharon had doffed his uniform for good. When the right-wing Likud Party came to power in 1977, he became the minister of agriculture, a seemingly unpromising post, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. However, Sharon, a human bulldozer, was able to promise economic incentives to Israelis willing to settle in the occupied territories. In this way, the number of those who did so rose from 15,000 to 100,000 within four years. In 1981, a year after the defense ministry became vacant, he was appointed to that post.

In 1983, Begin and Sharon launched the invasion of Lebanon with the objective of ending terrorism from that country. The campaign proved to be the worst error of his political life; instead of taking 72 hours as planned, it lasted 18 years. Of it Israelis, adapting the words of a well-known children’s ditty, used to sing:

           Aircraft come down from the clouds
           Take us north to Lebanon
           We shall fight for Mr. Sharon
           And come back, wrapped in shrouds.

Things got worse from there. Early in 1983, Christian Lebanese militias massacred some 800 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut. Sharon was blamed for failing to stop the killings and was forced to resign.        

In 2000, after Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, had failed to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David, Sharon demonstratively visited the Temple Mount. By so doing, he helped to trigger a Palestinian uprising, the second intifada, which, over a period of five years, left about 1,000 Israelis and 4,000 Palestinians dead. Many Israelis considered the conflict a success, and in early 2001, Sharon took over as prime minister. His continued efforts to suppress the Palestinian uprising involved quite a bit of brutality, culminating in the attack that flattened part of the West Bank city of Jenin in the spring of 2002. In 2003, Sharon stood for election and won.

It cannot be known whether Sharon was already thinking of giving up at least some of the Palestinian territories Israel held when he took office. At the time, he repeatedly said he would not play a role similar to France’s General Charles de Gaulle’s in the Algerian war of independence. In any case, his hand was forced. Stung by terrorism, the Israeli public demanded that a fence be built between themselves and the Palestinians. A fence did in fact go up around the Gaza Strip and proved extremely effective in stopping suicide bombers. Soon thereafter, Israel evacuated the Strip. Nor did Sharon, the decades-long extreme hard-liner, make any secret of his intention to evacuate large parts of the West Bank, too. When his own Likud Party objected, he left it and established a new one. With his old comrades shouting “traitor,” he prepared for new elections. His party, Kadima, won, but by that time, its founder, having suffered an incapacitating stroke, was not around to enjoy the victory.

About another leader Walt Whitman wrote the following lines:

           O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
           The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
           The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
           While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                      But O heart! heart! heart
                      O the bleeding drops of red
                      Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                      Fallen cold and dead.

Unfortunately, Israel’s ship is far from having “weather’d every rack.” Now that Sharon has passed away, there are two things Israelis might learn from him. The first is his exceptional ability as a daring, if headstrong, commander who has no equal in his country’s history. The second is that, if they ever want to have peace, they must take the road that he, during his last years as prime minister, indicated.

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  • MARTIN VAN CREVELD is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of more than 20 books on military history and strategy.
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