In many aspects, Ariel Sharon was an inconsistent figure, unexpected and hard to analyze. The former Israeli prime minister, who died Saturday, will be remembered as a brave soldier and a sophisticated politician, a decisive builder but an efficient destroyer, hawkish but pragmatic, a brilliant strategist and a precise tactician, a devoted farmer and a true Zionist. In each of his endeavors, Sharon won considerable amounts of criticism, from both sides of the map, but the one word that best describes him is “bulldozer,” because whatever it was that Sharon set out to obtain, he couldn’t be stopped once he was after it.
One of Sharon’s first notable contributions to Israel’s security was the founding of “Unit 101.” It was meant to provide an unorthodox answer to the constant attacks launched by terror squads during the early 1950s which cost many civilian lives. The unit’s method was to give the enemy a taste of its own medicine: hitting it in its own houses, spreading uncertainty within its lines and taking the initiative in the campaign.
The experience that was gained through the bold operations the unit carried out served as the cornerstone for the future Israeli Defense Force’s counterterrorism infrastructure. Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli elite unit that rescued the passengers of the hijacked Air France flight to Tel Aviv in 1976 in the famous Entebbe operation, took a similar approach.
The story of Unit 101 represents Sharon’s security perspective as well as the way he would conduct himself later in his career. In the months leading up to the Six Day War, when war seemed imminent and the entire Israeli public was under great anxiety, Sharon, then a general in the general staff of the IDF, strongly advocated a preemptive strike. Later, in 1971, when terror attacks from Gaza started to be a matter of daily routine, Sharon successfully implemented this doctrine in the elimination of terror as the general of Southern Command.
It was during Sharon’s first term as prime minister, which started in 2002, that the security fence was built on the West Bank. As a clear defensive measure, the erection of the fence was in complete contradiction to everything Sharon had preached until then. Nevertheless, it has proven highly successful in reducing suicide attacks in the heart of Israel to almost zero compared to previous years.
Sharon was known for his support to “the complete land of Israel.” As such, he rejected the notion of establishing a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. He opposed the Oslo process about which he said “peace can be made with enemies but not with murderers.” Furthermore, Sharon was often called “the father of settlements.”
Yet Sharon was also responsible for uprooting the largest number of Jewish settlers in Israel’s history. After the 1979 peace treaty was signed with Egypt, Sharon was appointed minister of defense by Prime Minister Menachem Begin who knew that he would have to have Sharon on his side for the upcoming evacuations of the residents of Sinai in order to prevent a violent collision between the settler community and the army. In 2005, it was Sharon who executed the disengagement plan from Gaza and northern Samaria. Entire towns and thousands of settlers were forced to abandon their homes.
Sharon was subsequently treated with much hostility by factions on the right, the very camp he came from. A right-wing member of the Knesset described him as “one of the greatest developers of the land of Israel — and its biggest destroyer.”
Sharon was the initiating spirit behind the forming of the Likud party in 1973, the same year he was discharged from the army. Likud was his natural home. It matched his convictions and remained the political center of gravity in Israel since it won its first election in 1977.
Thirty-three years later, Sharon “defected” from the lines of Likud and formed a new, centrist party, Kadima, which won the elections of March 2006 and took power from Likud. Sharon brought with him one third of Likud‘s members, along with elements from the center-left, including incumbent president Shimon Peres.
When asked by journalists whether his new partnership with Peres would influence his beliefs, Sharon said: “With all due respect to Peres’ physical shape, do you think that he is able to drag me to the left?”
Kadima‘s first mission was to implement the disengagement plan which was accomplished to the satisfaction of the government a few months after it took office.
What the above should illustrate is that Sharon wasn’t just an ideological leader, nor was he merely an opportunist or pragmatist. Sharon had a flexible mindset that allowed him to remain above everyday politics and adapt to constantly changing circumstances throughout his decades of service to the state of Israel.
Sharon was also a military and political genius who had the ability to plan many steps ahead. He represents much of what is attributed to the Israeli character and survival instinct, creativity and stubbornness. Israel’s national memory of Sharon is like many other things in the Jewish nation — complex but it definitely holds Sharon as one of the greatest leaders and even a national savior for his part in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Sharon always stood on the front lines, wherever they were drawn, eager to contribute his part. As the late Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s seventh prime minister, said: “Everything is possible in this country, as much as there is no limit to the unexpected on behalf of Sharon.”