Remembering Ariel Sharon (1928–2014)

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A respected commander, man of the land, seasoned politician, family man, controversial defense minister, determined prime minister, and, above all, for better or worse, a leader. In the article below, Dr. Ofer Kenig presents some of the milestones in the career of Ariel Sharon, the 11th Prime Minister of the State of Israel.

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 to a farming family in Kfar Malal, a small village in what was then British-mandate Palestine. In his youth, he joined the Haganah, and at the start of Israel's War of Independence in 1948, he commanded a platoon in the Alexandroni brigade. Sharon was wounded seriously in the Battle of Latrun, but recovered, and at the end of the war, he remained in the Israel Defense Forces and rose through its ranks. In 1953, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked Sharon to set up Unit 101 and stand at its head. This legendary unit was actually the first commando unit in the IDF. Its fighters specialized in performing military action deep in enemy territory. Under Sharon's command, the unit created an original and advanced combat doctrine for the IDF. Unit 101 carried out a series of raids and reprisals, the most famous of which took place in October 1953 in the West Bank village of Qibya, from which terrorists had carried out a murderous attack in Yehud. Under Sharon's command, approximately 45 houses in the village were blown up and tens of villagers were killed as a result of the explosions. Like other actions by the unit, this raid generated both inspiration from the courage and determination of the fighters, and controversy about the morality of what had been done.

In early 1954, Unit 101 was merged with Battalion 890 of the paratroopers, and Ariel Sharon was appointed battalion commander. With the establishment of the Paratroopers Brigade, just before the Sinai Campaign (1956), Sharon became its commander, and was promoted to Colonel when he was just 28 years old. In those years, Sharon earned a reputation as a "bulldozer"—a tough, opinionated, and impulsive man who got into many confrontations with others and who had no qualms about giving inaccurate reports to his superiors. It is told that David Ben-Gurion said of Sharon: "Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth and to distance himself from gossip, he would be an exceptional military leader.''

During the Sinai campaign, Sharon commanded the IDF forces in the Battle of Mitla, one of the fiercest battles in the history of the Israeli army, in which almost 40 soldiers were killed. The heavy casualty toll sparked a debate in which serious allegations were directed against Sharon, who was criticized for leading troops into a battle that was of questionable necessity, while ignoring explicit orders from the senior officers. As a result, Sharon's ascent in the IDF was frozen, and he went to law school. In 1964, the newly appointed Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, appointed Sharon as chief of staff of the Northern Command, and two years later, in 1966, Sharon was appointed as Head of Training, with the rank of General. Shortly before the Six Day War, Sharon was appointed division commander in the Southern Command. During the war, he was extremely successful as the commander of several large campaigns in the Sinai, and rose to fame.

Serious disagreements with Chief of Staff Haim Bar Lev led Sharon to consider resigning from the military, as he put out feelers to enter politics by joining the Gahal (Herut Liberal) list. In the end, after much pleading, he abandoned his intentions to retire from the military and in early 1970 was GOC of the Southern Command. In this position, he oversaw the final stages of the War of Attrition and commanded a sustained operation against terrorism in the Gaza Strip. This operation achieved its goal and brought peace in Gaza, but the nature of the military activities conducted as part of the operation, which included the heavy-handed demolition of houses, was controversial and drew criticism that was directed at Sharon. In the summer of 1973, Sharon retired from the army and went into politics.

Upon leaving the army, Ariel Sharon joined the ranks of the Liberal Party, and immediately turned his efforts to establishing the Likud, a Knesset list that would include Gachal (an acronym for "Gush Herut Liberalim," the Herut–Liberal Bloc that had run as a joint list since 1965), and additional political forces such as the National List (Hareshima Hamamlachtit), the Free Center (HaMerkaz HaHofshi), and the Greater Land of Israel Movement. Sharon’s efforts bore fruit, and Likud was founded shortly before the elections for the 8th Knesset, which were scheduled for the autumn of 1973. Sharon was appointed head of the Likud's campaign, but then the Yom Kippur War broke out, and he was called up to command division in the Sinai. During the war, sharp conflicts arose between Sharon and the IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General David Elazar, General Shmuel Gonen, GOC of the Southern Command and Lt. General Haim Bar-Lev, Commander of the Southern Front. During the war, these conflicts reached a point at which there was talk of removing him from his position. Despite this, Sharon played a major role in the war, including crossing the Suez Canal and conquering a large portion of the West Bank.

After the war, Sharon, who ranked 8th on the Likud list of candidates, was elected to the Knesset. In late 1974, following disagreements with other party members, he decided to resign from the Knesset, and shortly thereafter was appointed as security adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He resigned from that post as well, due to disagreements with Rabin’s policies. Prior to the 1977 elections, he founded the Shlomtzion Party, which won two Knesset seats and merged quickly into the Likud. The dramatic results of those elections, which ended almost 30 years of rule by the left-wing in Israel, brought Menachem Begin into the Prime Minister's office, and he appointed Sharon as Minister of Agriculture and Chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Settlement Affairs. In this position, Sharon worked to expand settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, while working in close contact with the Gush Emunim movement. Sharon was one of the more hawkish ministers in Begin's government and often clashed with the more moderate members of the government. Following Ezer Weizman's resignation as Defense Minister, Sharon saw himself as the natural candidate to replace him. Begin refused, and the following statement was attributed to him:  "Who would vote for Arik's appointment if I were to propose appointing him as Minister of Defense? He cannot control himself!" Nevertheless, Sharon did not have long to wait for his wish to be fulfilled.

In the elections for the 10th Knesset (1981), Sharon was ranked 12th on the Likud list of candidates. This time Menachem Begin decided to appoint him Defense Minister in his new cabinet. Apparently, the reason that led Begin to change his mind was the belief that the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Sinai as part of the peace agreements with Egypt would go more smoothly with Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister. Sharon did indeed lead the evacuation of the Sinai settlements. At the same time, he advanced plans for a war against the PLO in Lebanon, while fostering cooperation with the Christians in Lebanon. In 1982, Sharon initiated Operation Peace for Galilee. The government approved an IDF incursion into Lebanon that would be limited to 40 km north of the Israel-Lebanon border (according to the declaration of the Prime Minister from the Knesset podium). In actuality, the IDF continued past the 40 km limit and reached as far as Beirut. Following the operation, IDF forces remained deep inside Lebanon for another three years, engaging in serious conflicts resulting in heavy casualties. The high casualty toll, the sense of futility felt by many regarding the IDF’s ongoing presence in Lebanon, and reports that Sharon had deceived Prime Minister Begin and the cabinet ministers during the war drastically weakened Sharon’s public image.

The harsh criticism of the Defense Minister reached its peaked following the massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. In early 1983, the Kahan Commission, a Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate the events in the refugee camps, found Ariel Sharon guilty of ignoring the foreseeable dangers following the assassination of Lebanese politician Bashir Gemayel. The Commission recommended removing Sharon from his position: "Defense Minister Ariel Sharon should draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed in the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office" or, if necessary, the Prime Minister should "consider whether he should exercise his authority… to remove a minister from office."Sharon will Stay in Israeli Cabinet; Duties Uncertain, The New York Times, February 14, 1983. Sharon tried to resist the recommendations of the Commission, but the government adopted them. As a compromise, Sharon resigned from the post of Minister of Defense and became a Minister without Portfolio.

The Lebanon War and the Kahan Commission’s conclusions led to a sharp deterioration of Sharon's public image and popularity. In the eyes of many Israelis, he was an anathema. Over the next 17 years, Sharon remained an active politician and even served as a minister for most of the time, but the working assumption was that he would not be able to ascend to the senior leadership positions of Defense Minister or Prime Minister. Sharon served for six years as Minister of Trade and Industry, and then as Minister of Housing and Construction, where he was entrusted with the job of preparing housing for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. This role also prompted criticism for Sharon’s “bulldozer behavior,” which at times was questionable in terms of good governance.

Ariel Sharon’s Positions in the Israeli Government

Years   Position
1977–1981   Minister of Agriculture
1981–1983   Minister of Defense
1983–1984   Minister without Portfolio
1984–1990   Minister of Trade and Industry
1990–1992   Minister of Housing
1996–1999   Minister of Infrastructure
1998–1999   Minister of Foreign Affairs
2001–2006   Prime Minister



Within the Likud, Sharon maintained strong support. Thus, before elections for the 11th Knesset, Sharon competed with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir within the Herut Central Committee for the leadership of the Likud. Sharon lost to Shamir, but received over 40% of votes, a significant demonstration of power. In 1989–1990, Sharon was one of the three "constraint ministers" (along with David Levy and Yitzhak Modai) who limited Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s room to maneuver in advancing diplomatic processes. In February 1990, this internal struggle within the Likud party reached its peak in a meeting of the Likud Central Committee. Sharon, who served as chairman of the Central Committee, tried to prevent Shamir from holding a vote in support for his intended line of action. The two spoke simultaneously, each using a different microphone. Shamir screamed into his microphone, "All in favor, raise your hand," while Sharon roared, "Who wants to eliminate terrorism?” into his. Many hands were raised in response to the two questions, and it was unclear who had actually won. Shortly afterwards, Sharon resigned from the government, but returned few months later after the “stinking maneuver,” in which Labor Party leader Shimon Peres conspired with the Shas party to form a government without the ruling Likud, failed.

After Likud lost in the 1992 elections, Sharon decided to watch the party’s succession struggle from the sidelines. Sharon did not have the best relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, the new party leader, and did not hesitate to criticize him. Nevertheless, leading up to the 1996 elections, Sharon worked hard to build a joint Likud-Gesher-Tzomet list and worked to persuade the ultra-Orthodox public to vote for Netanyahu. After the elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not plan to include Sharon in the new government, but David Levy insisted that Sharon be given an executive position in the government. This led to the creation of the Ministry of National Infrastructures, which Sharon headed until 1999. In 1998, Sharon was appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs after David Levy resigned from the government.

After Netanyahu and Likud lost in the 1999 elections, Ariel Sharon decided to fight for the Likud leadership. In the primaries held in September1999, Sharon beat Ehud Olmert and Meir Shitrit. The primaries aroused little interest due to the assumption that the winner would serve as interim party leader, would mostly focus on rehabilitating the party, and that further elections for the party leadership would be conducted before the next Knesset elections. However, political circumstances had another fate in store for Sharon. He became leader of the opposition and led the fight against the peace talks orchestrated by Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In the fall of 2000, Sharon decided to take a tour of the Temple Mount. This highly publicized tour is commonly seen as the spark that ignited the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The early elections that were held in early 2001, combined with the decision of Benjamin Netanyahu (who was not a Knesset member at the time) not to run for Prime Minister, placed Sharon in an unexpected position: he became the right-wing candidate in the direct elections for Prime Minister and defeated the incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Thus, over 17 years after he was forced to resign from the Defense Ministry, a period in which he wore a mark of Cain, Sharon was elected as Israel’s 11th Prime Minister by a vast majority of the Israeli public.

The prediction made by Uri Dan, a close associate of Sharon, after Sharon’s dismissal from the Defense Ministry had come true: "Those who did not want Sharon as the Army Chief of Staff got him as Defense Minister. Those who do not want him now as Defense Minister, will get him as Prime Minister."

Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel on February 6, 2001, in a special election for prime minister. He received 62% of the vote and defeated the incumbent, Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Despite Sharon's overwhelming win, the task of forming the government was challenging, since the ruling party—the Likud—had only 19 Knesset seats at the time. Given these constraints, Sharon was forced to form a large government, with the largest number of members that there had ever been until that time. At its peak, his government had 30 ministers and some 10 deputy ministers. This broad government included partners with conflicting opinions, and resembled an emergency government, given the security situation and the economic situation at the time. During Sharon's first government, he gave the orders to launch Operation Defensive Shield and initiated the construction of the separation barrier. At the start of his tenure, he threw all his weight behind the efforts to cancel the direct elections of the prime minister and advocated a return to the two ballot system. The government was marked by instability, with many parties breaking off and joining the coalition.

In the period leading up to the elections for the 16th Knesset in 2003, Sharon defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud primary elections. The primaries were tense, and were preceded by a massive registration campaign for party membership, in which questionable methods were used to recruit large numbers of voters. These primaries were later associated with a scandal that involved Sharon's son, Omri, who was accused of unlawful financing of his father's campaign. In the national elections that followed, Sharon led the Likud to its greatest electoral success in 15 years: 38 Knesset seats. This time, Sharon was able to form a narrower coalition, and chose to include Shinui, the National Union, and the National Religious Party (NRP) as partners with the Likud. During the first year of Sharon's second government, Sharon changed his position regarding Israel's presence in the Gaza Strip. While before the elections, he would say that the Gaza settlement of Netzarim is "the same as Tel Aviv" and dismissed the idea of withdrawing from Gaza, after the elections, he adopted the plan for a unilateral disengagement from Gaza and supervised its implementation. At an address to the Herzliya Conference in December 2003, he explained the change in his position: 

"The purpose of the Disengagement Plan is to reduce terror as much as possible, and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security. The process of disengagement will lead to an improvement in the quality of life, and will help strengthen the Israeli economy. The unilateral steps which Israel will take in the framework of the Disengagement Plan will be fully coordinated with the United States. We must not harm our strategic coordination with the United States. These steps will increase security for the residents of Israel and relieve the pressure on the IDF and security forces in fulfilling the difficult tasks they are faced with. The Disengagement Plan is meant to grant maximum security and minimize friction between Israelis and Palestinians." 

Address of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Fourth Herzliya Conference


Having decided to disengage from Gaza, Sharon did everything in his power to reach that goal, using his vast political experience. This included firing ministers without compunction (Sharon used the authority granted by Basic Law: The Government to remove ministers from office more than any other Israeli prime minister), changing the composition of the coalition, parliamentary tricks and maneuvers, speaking out against senior party members, and even ignoring the position of approximately one hundred thousand Likud members who had voted against the disengagement. By the end of disengagement, Sharon had signed the two biggest evacuation operations of Jewish settlements: the evacuation of the settlements in Sinai in 1982 and the evacuation of the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria in 2005. As in many cases in the past, this move embroiled Sharon in controversy once again. There were those that praised his leadership qualities and the fact that he did not hesitate to reverse his position. Others accused him of betraying the trust of Likud voters and initiating a forceful and aggressive move that ignored public sentiment. Some went even further and claimed that the move was intended to divert attention the various investigations being conducted at the time involving Sharon and his inner circle.

Following the disengagement, Ariel Sharon found himself at the height of his popularity with the Israeli public, while simultaneously under constant attack from within his party. Given the circumstances, Sharon considered a bold move that would shake the party system:  he would leave the Likud and form a new centrist party that would attract prominent politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, who represent “the sane center.” After much hesitation, Sharon announced his resignation from Likud in November 2005 and his establishment of Kadima. Alongside this move, dubbed the "political big bang," Sharon  called early elections. Polls predicted great success for the new party and its popular leader, but in early January 2006, a massive stroke put an end to all the plans and forecasts. The curtain fell on Ariel Sharon’s career.

Sharon's death marks the death of one of Israel's political giants. Without a doubt, Sharon was one of the most prominent, colorful, and controversial figures in the history of Israel. In all the stages of his life—as a fighter, commander, politician and prime minister—he was creative, original, determined, and crafty.

To many, Sharon was a model modern leader: a tough man who radiated authority, knew what he wanted, and was able to hold his own and efficiently eliminate obstacles. He was a classic Mapai-like character, a pragmatist who was not bound by a specific ideology, and a person who was able to change his position in response to a changing reality. To others, however, these same traits enabled Sharon to stoop to use means with questionable legitimacy, or means that were illegitimate, in order to reach his desired goals.

How, then, will Israel's 11th Prime Minister be remembered? Historian Anita Shapira, an Israel Prize laureate who headed IDI's Nation State project from 2009–2013, sums it up as follows: "Ariel Sharon was one of the last remaining links that we had to the 1950s, to the retaliations, to the Paratroopers Brigade, and to other tales of heroism recorded in the glorious annals of Israeli history. He was one of the greatest field commanders, and his was also the last "Mapainik"—a pragmatist who knew how to change gears, change ideology, meet the demands of reality, and respond to the wishes of the people. In the end, we forgave him for his sins—and they were many—and remembered his virtues and leadership." 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Political Reform project.