Ariel Sharon’s mixed legacy

When Sharon fell into his coma, Israel was left with the question: what if?

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

Arik Sharon, as he was affectionately known to Israelis, will be buried later today next to his beloved wife Lily on Anemone Hill in the grounds of Sycamore farm, in the southern Israel. Yesterday, as officials stood on the hill and planned the funeral with full military honours, the farm continued to function as it does most days, with sheep and dairy produce being loaded onto trucks to be sold at the local market.

Whilst he built his reputation as a heroic fighter within Israel, he was, and is, a reviled figure among Israel’s enemies. There are ‘celebrations’ today across the Arab world to mark his funeral. Known to some as the Butcher of Beirut 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.

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.

From his 25 years in uniform to his political ascendency which ended so abruptly while serving as Prime Minister eight years ago, the 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.

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.

Later that year Sharon revealed the Disengagement Plan, whereby Israel would uproot all 21 of the Jewish settlements from the Gaza strip and remove another four from the West Bank. After implementing this plan two years later, he faced bitter resistance and resentment inside his own Likud party and decided to quit the party he had created 30 years earlier and form 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 including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, 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 wholesome 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, the country was left with the question: what if? 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.

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8 Responses to “Ariel Sharon’s mixed legacy”

  1. swatnan

    The man was a disgrace, and didn’t apologise.
    Until Israel suffers actual military defeat, there will be no peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately its the only language people like Sharon understand.

  2. Paul J

    I dont have any particular animus against Israel, but Sharon was a vile war criminal. Your obit leaves out the fact that he deliberately provoked the second intifada with his inflamatory tour of the Al Asqa mosque, surrounded by hundreds of policemen, at a time of especially high tension. He got what he wanted, and he did it for cold, calculated, political reasons.
    He won the subsequent prime ministerial elections as a result.

    A brutal, cruel and cynical man

  3. Bryan

    When it comes to war criminals there is no-one who can compare with Yasser Arafat. Sharon did what he had to to safeguard the security of Israel, surrounded by hostile enemies who only wanted it’s destruction. And when it came to making peace he could make peace….disengage from Gaza and planned to withdraw settlements from the West Bank before his stroke.

  4. Ashley Dickenson

    If the Arab nations who oppose Israel lay down their arms: peace in the Middle East.
    If Israel were to lay down its arms: nation of Israel and most likely all the Jews wiped out.
    At least Sharon resigned as Defence Minister after the dreadful massacres in those refugee camps: most Israelis too were appalled.

  5. Ashley Dickenson

    That second intafada was due to happen, with or without his visit to the Al Asqa Mosque.

  6. swatnan

    The Palestinians have few friends amongst the Arabs these days; I doubt if any Arab country would want to take on Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.
    But they would if israel attacked themselves. eg if Israel bombed Iran or Iraq or Lebanon or Syria. And there is the danger, of conflagration because Israel believes it can dominate the ME. An attack on Iran would bring the Arab Countries together in one final assault on Israel, and that is where I see Israel being defeated. It would be a do or die retaliation by the Arabs.

  7. Ashley Dickenson

    Israel only seeks peace amongst its neighbours and peaceful co-existence. Ever since its independence in 1948. The Arab response has, ever since, been one of rejection, not least the three Noes. Besides wars against Israel. And as and when Israel has reacted, it has been to defend itself against aggression, as any sovereign nation would seek to do.

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