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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