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ARIEL SHARON (1928-2014)

 'I know best' this characterized Arik Sharon, both as a vaunted military commander and an unpredictable politician. He is destined to be remembered as the most controversial of all Israeli public figures. To friend and foe he became known as the 'bulldozer'- his driving determination could overcome most obstacles in his way whether his superiors or political supporters agreed or not. Some military commentators have rated him as the best field commander and strategist in the annals of the IDF, while in his subsequent career in politics he was a formidable opponent.

 Arik's early exploits...

Sharon as a 19-year-old Haganah fighter in 1948 (photo courtesy of Tamar Yadeni)

 Sharon was born in the farming village of Kfar Malal in 1928 - his parents had immigrated to Palestine from Russia. At age fourteen he volunteered for the Haganah, the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces in the days of the British mandate in 'Palestine'. His military exploits, like most of the young men of his generation, began in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. Arik was shot in the stomach and was nearly killed while serving as a platoon commander in the bloody battle of Latrun. But this did not stop him. The military prowess and leadership of the young paratrooper officer led to his appointment as commander of the Special Forces 101 Unit, whose mission was to put a stop to murderous terrorist infiltrations from Jordan and the Gaza Strip after the founding of the state. Using non-conventional tactics, Sharon initiated cross border raids to wipe out the terrorists. Within a relatively short period of time his paratroopers had suppressed most of the infiltrations. But after Arab children and women were killed in one operation, the unit was disbanded.

Sharon, top second from left, with members of Unit 101 after Operation Egged (November 1955).

 Arik had already made a name for himself as an outstanding officer. Like U.S. General George Patton in WWII, Sharon was a 'Go for broke' commander. First came careful planning and then the mission was to be carried out at all costs by driving forward and hitting the enemy with massive firepower where he didn't expect it. When Israel launched the Sinai Campaign against Egypt in 1956, gung-ho Arik ended up in hot water when he ignored orders not to enter the Mitla Pass and take on heavily fortified Egyptian forces. Like Patton, Sharon's approach was: "I'm here in the field with my troops and see what's going on with my own eyes, what do those guys back at headquarters know!' By the time the Six Day War erupted eleven years later, Sharon was in the thick of the action in Sinai. In 1969, he was appointed OC (officer commanding) of Southern Command, and appointed Maj. Gen., the highest rank in the IDF after the Chief of Staff. One of his first missions was to suppress the mounting wave of terrorism from Gaza. Again with his customary effectiveness, some would say ruthlessness, Sharon again halted the murderous Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. In June 1973, just three months before the Egyptian and Syrian massive surprise attack, Arik was retired from the IDF. Why was he not promoted to IDF Chief of Staff after his illustrious military career? Most likely because the political leadership at the time, Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, were wary they might not be able to control the brilliant but mercurial general, one who had a reputation for tuning out his radio, if he disagreed with the orders he was getting.

 

 'Savior of Israel'...

Sharon's 143rd Division, crossing the Suez Canal, in the direction of Cairo, 15 October 1973. (photo credit: IDF)

 With his military career apparently over, Arik turned his talents to politics. However, Egypt and Syria had other clandestine plans that would propel the retired general into the greatest challenge of his life. In the IDF, retiring officers and soldiers are assigned to the reserves. In Sharon's case, he became a divisional commander just four months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on Oct. 6, 1973. Israel was taken by almost total surprise. Massive Egyptian and Syrian forces pulverized the sparse Israeli forces along the Suez Canal and on the Golan Heights. The IDF was hopelessly outnumbered by the Arab armies that had been massing on the fronts but were dismissed by IDF intelligence as no more than another military exercise. In the North, the Syrians nearly broke through the last IDF tanks which were still able to hold the line after suffering huge losses. The IDF's lightly manned outposts along the Suez Canal were overrun with many troops being killed, in some cases being incinerated by Egyptian flame throwers. Others were taken prisoner, while a small number managed to make their way back to the retreating IDF line under the cover of night. In one case, Gen. Sharon actually advised the beleaguered soldiers by radio to get out while they still could, in contradiction to being ordered by headquarters to hold out because relief was on the way.

 The IDF was rushing reserve units to the front, but it was all too little, too late. Russian-supplied SAM anti-aircraft missiles and Sagger anti-tank missiles were taking a heavy toll of Israeli jets and tanks. The Arab juggernaut had scored decisive gains in the first days of the war - in a fit of despair, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan even exclaimed: "The Third Temple of Israel is about to fall!" In those dark days, the IDF was thrown back from nearly the entire Suez Canal zone and hard pressed to prevent the Egyptian Army from advancing into Sinai. If they had, the road may have been open all the way to Tel Aviv. The IDF General Staff was in disarray with Chief of Staff David Elazar trying desperately to form new defense lines both in Sinai and on the Golan Heights. This was the scene of pandemonium facing Sharon and his division as they raced to the Suez front, the theatre he himself had commanded a short time earlier.

Like Patton, Sharon was a stickler for gaining reconnaissance on the enemy and seeking ways to go on the offensive.

 Like Patton, Sharon was a stickler for gaining reconnaissance on the enemy and seeking ways to go on the offensive. But in the midst of the debacle, Sharon's immediate commander in the south and the Chief of Staff were primarily interested in trying to stabilize the situation with a new defensive deployment to block the Egyptian advance. Then came a fortuitous event that changed the very outcome of the entire war. On the night of Oct. 11th, one of Sharon's reconnaissance patrols reached the Canal and discovered a gap between the Second and Third Egyptian armies. Arik immediately recognized the significance. He instantly informed his immediate commander, Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen, who had replaced him, and the Chief of Staff, proposing that his paratroopers exploit the situation by launching an amphibious assault across the Canal that could attack the Egyptian armies from the rear. However, Elazar and Gonen decided it was too risky, and Sharon had to wait another four days before launching 'Operation Bravehearts', which dramatically changed the balance of power along the entire Egyptian front. On the other hand, if the Egyptians had realized in time what Sharon was up to, their vastly superior forces could have wiped out the entire Israeli force when it crossed the Canal to form a bridgehead on the Egyptian side. The Israeli operation, so fraught with danger, proved to be a spectacular success that enabled the IDF to smash the Egyptian forces. The entire Third Army was surrounded and rather than the road being open to Tel Aviv, Sharon had opened the road to Cairo! Arik had turned the tables and was credited with saving Israel.

"Sharon was suspicious by nature and it is unlikely that he would have also sanguinely observed the massive Egyptian build up before his very eyes and not done something about it!"

 One intriguing question: What if Sharon had not been retired from his post as Commander of the Southern Front that included the Suez Canal? If he had still been in command on Oct 6th, would the IDF have been taken by surprise? Prof. Uri Bar Yosef of Haifa University has written a book about the Yom Kippur War entitled: 'While the Watchman Slept'. In answer to my question, Bar Yosef's assessment was that Sharon would have made a difference. Bar Yosef replied: "Sharon was suspicious by nature and it is unlikely that he would have also sanguinely observed the massive Egyptian build up before his very eyes and not done something about it!" In any case, for most Israelis, war hero Sharon had been adorned the mantle of 'Arik, king of Israel', and most worthy of Rudyard Kipling's immortal lines: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs... Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And-which is more-you'll be a Man, my Son!"

 

 Arik the politician...

Ariel Sharon serving as Minister of Defense, in photo with Caspar Weinberger, 1982.

 Riding this wave of popularity, Arik then launched his political career to eventually serve in the cabinet of Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. In the later seventies he led the building of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, gaining strong political support from Right-wing voters. In 1981, Begin rewarded Sharon by appointing him to the top position in his cabinet - Defense Minister. It was a big move up on the Likud totem pole. At the time, Yasser Arafat and his PLO terrorists had established a strong base in southern Lebanon from where they launched Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Palestinian terrorists also accelerated attacks abroad that culminated in the shooting of Israel's ambassador Shlomo Argov in London on June 3, 1982. Three days later, Israel launched the 'Peace for Galilee' ground operation that Begin promised would advance only 40 kilometers into southern Lebanon, in order to put the Katyushas out of range of Israel. However, as usual, Arik had bigger plans.

Arik's ultimate goal was to link up with the Christian Maronite forces and sign a peace agreement.

 After receiving cabinet approval for the limited operation, Sharon expanded it to send IDF forces all the way to Beirut, with the aim of expelling Arafat and the PLO from Lebanon. Arik's ultimate goal was to link up with the Christian Maronite forces and sign a peace agreement. Several cabinet ministers, including Mordechai Zippori, a retired Brig. Gen., later charged that Sharon had duped the cabinet and 'rolled' what was to have been a limited operation into a full scale war. It was only 18 years later and after more than 1200 Israeli soldiers were killed that the IDF withdrew from Lebanon. In the midst of this campaign, Prime Minister Menachem Begin resigned declaring: "I can no longer carry on." The conjecture was that Begin had suffered a severe bout of depression over the IDF losses which were far greater than he or anyone else had foreseen.

 

 'The best laid plans'...

Memorial for the Sabra & Shalita Massacre of 1982. (photo credit: BertramZ)

 Gen. Sharon's foray into global politics was to end in disaster. He resembled Gen. Douglas MacArthur who attempted to impose his military approach on President Harry Truman during the Korean War. Sharon actually succeeded. He had reached a secret pact with Christian Maronite President-Elect Bachir Gemayel, and that took Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the rest of the world again by surprise. But not for long. Like MacArthur, Sharon had badly misjudged the political forces at work. Immediately after the signing of the peace treaty, analyst Dov Yinon, my late friend and colleague told me: "What does Arik think he's doing. Does he think Syria's President Hafez Assad is going to let this happen! And does Arik think he can pull off such a stunt without the U.S. being involved? Arik's peace treaty with Gemayel is not worth the paper it's written on!" (At the time, U.S. mediator, Philip Habib, was also involved in a peace mission to the region).  As was so often the case, Dov Yinon proved to be right. On Sept.14, 1982, a huge bomb blast demolished the Maronite Christian headquarters in Beirut, killing Gemayel and 26 others. Syria had blown Sharon's very short-lived peace treaty to smithereens - it lay amid the rubble in Beirut.

Sharon...had fallen from the pinnacle of 'illustrious war hero' to being fired after being deemed unworthy to serve as Israel's defense minister.

 Things turned from bad to catastrophic. Although Damascus orchestrated the bombing, Gemayel's supporters blamed the Palestinians, and, unknown to Sharon, they were plotting revenge. At that time, there had been criticism in Israel about the Lebanese Christians not doing their part in the ongoing fighting with the PLO. The IDF had been taking nearly all the casualties. Two days later an IDF commander authorized a Lebanese Christian unit to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and round up Palestinian fighters. But they went on a rampage, murdering thousands of Palestinian children, women, and men. Christians had massacred Muslims, but the area was controlled by the IDF. A wave of disgust and condemnation swept the world, and in Israel there were demonstrations and a public outcry that the government appoint an official commission of enquiry to investigate what had happened. Sharon argued: "This was not our doing!" He had no prior knowledge the Lebanese Christians would carry out such an atrocity. After condemning the massacre, the Israeli cabinet then appointed the Kahan enquiry which found that Sharon bore 'personal responsibility' for not realizing the Lebanese Christians might commit the war crime. The commission ruled that Sharon had to be removed from his position. It was the low point of Arik's life - he had fallen from the pinnacle of 'illustrious war hero' to being fired after being deemed unworthy to serve as Israel's defense minister.

 

 Sharon's comeback...

Sharon visiting the Temple Mount.

 Arik was down but not out. And like MacArthur's vow of "I shall return!" upon fleeing the Philippines in WWII, Sharon was also determined to make a comeback. Arik was allowed to remain in the cabinet where he served successfully in several other portfolios, including foreign minister. Sixteen years later, Arik made it back to the top. In 1999, he was elected Likud party leader. As Opposition Leader, he then made a highly controversial visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, the site of the First and Second Jewish temples. However, since biblical times, the Muslims have tried to co-opt this sacred site by building two mosques over it and barring religious Jews from praying there. This did not faze Sharon, who wanted to make a point. Surrounded by a cordon of Israeli policemen, Sharon was met by rioting Muslims. The atmosphere was already volatile. After Yasser Arafat had refused to accept President Bill Clinton's peace proposal for a Palestinian state at Camp David, he returned to Ramallah to launch the Second Intifada. A mounting wave of Palestinian terrorism culminated in a deadly wave of suicide bombers that killed and wounded dozens of Israelis. With his record of successfully combating terrorism, Sharon easily defeated incumbent Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, of Labor in the election of 2001.

 The following year witnessed the Passover Massacre, the deadliest attack of the Second Intifada. On the evening of March 27th, several hundred Israelis, mostly senior citizens, had sat down for the Seder religious meal in the Park Hotel, on the Mediterranean seaside town of Netanya. A Palestinian suicide bomber walked into the dining room and detonated his explosive charge. Thirty civilians were killed and another 140 injured. During the month of March alone, 130 Israelis were killed in terror attacks. The cauldron had boiled over - two days later Sharon ordered the launching of Defensive Shield, a major IDF ground operation on the West Bank to smash the Palestinian infrastructure of terrorism.

 

 Sharon & Bush...

Sharon with Bush and Abbas at the Red Sea Summit, 2003.

 Under pressure from U.S. President George Bush, Arik shocked Israel by accepting the Roadmap peace plan that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a major shift in Sharon's approach to the territorial issue. Until then Arik had championed the Land of Israel movement and its hard line policy of not returning an inch to the Palestinians. Moreover, Arik was personally responsible for establishing more than 200 settlements on the West Bank. Following the disaster that followed his ignoring the U.S. in Lebanon, Arik had learnt his lesson - there was a need to coordinate policy with the Americans. But he did insist that the first condition of the Roadmap process was a total halt to Palestinian terrorism. Two years later, Sharon succeeded in getting a written commitment from Bush that there would be no Israeli pullout from the settlement blocs on the West Bank: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect the final outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice line of 1949 (pre-1967 line DE)."

But Sharon's greatest shocker was yet to come - in 2003, he raised the possibility of a unilateral evacuation of both IDF troops and Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip.

 But Sharon's greatest shocker was yet to come - in 2003, he raised the possibility of a unilateral evacuation of both IDF troops and Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip. The Likud party and the rest of the Right wing were shocked to the very core. Previously, Sharon had argued that the Israeli settlement of Nezareem was not different than Tel Aviv and suddenly he declared Israel should carry out a unilateral evacuation of all IDF forces and settlements from Gaza! Despite the strong opposition of Bibi Netanyahu, his strongest rival in the Likud, Sharon carries the day. In August 2005 Arik, by his sheer force of personality bulldozes through the pullout with the aid of thousands of IDF soldiers who forcibly remove some settlers. Even many die-hard Likudniks such as Tzachi Hanegbi opposed the radical step, but their faith in Arik was so strong that they went along with his extraordinary shift in policy.

 

 Arik, the super dove?...

 But why did Sharon seemingly make such an uncharacteristic concession to the Palestinians without getting anything in return? Even Left wingers such as Yossi Beilin opposed the disengagement contending that it should be part of a negotiated agreement with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. President Bush and the U.S. State Department were also puzzled - had Arik of all people, given a 'free lunch' to the Palestinians? There may be another side of the story. Sharon once referred to Abbas as a 'featherless chick' a weak leader with little influence over the Palestinians. In effect there was no Palestinian partner who could make a peace deal stick with his own people. Meanwhile, international pressure was building on Israel over the settlement issue. It was particularly acute over Gaza, where 8,500 Israelis lived in 21 settlements amid 1,300,000 Palestinians. IDF forces stationed in Gaza were in constant friction with the Palestinians in what became a geo-political absurdity because the IDF presence did not prevent the rockets being launched at Israel from Gaza. 'Disengagement' from Gaza was his preferred option, and if the Palestinians exploited the withdrawal to step up their cross border attacks from Gaza, Sharon would order the IDF to clobber Gaza.

 On this point, Israeli public opinion supported the evacuation, confident that Arik would know to cope if things went awry. Look at it another way: if Sharon had negotiated a disengagement accord with Abbas and the Palestinians then called off the terrorism, not only from the Gaza Strip but also from the West Bank, what would have been the next logical step? The Palestinians and the U.S. would have told Israel that an historic precedent had been set: 'Look you see there is a viable Palestinian peace partner who has ended the terrorism so now let's start negotiating an Israeli disengagement from all the West Bank!' Washington may have cottoned on to Sharon's strategy by insisting that four Israeli settlements on the West Bank also had to be part of the Gaza disengagement in order to stress that Gaza was not the end of the story.

 On the other hand, in May 2003 Sharon astounded his Likud Knesset caucus by referring repeatedly to Israel's strategic need to end the 'occupation' on the West Bank and not just in Gaza. The word 'occupation' was and still is an anathema to the Right wing in Israel. Sharon had thrown down the gauntlet to his own Likud, and it was only a matter of time before the rift tore the party apart. In November 2005, Sharon took the first step by resigning from the Likud to form a new Centrist party 'Kadima', forward. A number of leading Likudniks, such as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni followed him, while Shimon Peres of Labor pledged to support Sharon's peace efforts. After serving as prime minister and surprising one and all by his concessions for peace, Ariel Sharon, with his customary guffaw, entered a new expression in Israel's political lexicon by remarking: "What you see from there (the PM's chair) you can't see from here" - meaning when you're not the PM and facing all the various pressures.

 So did Sharon, like Generals Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak and even Menachem Begin, who gave back all of Sinai, undergo a metamorphosis upon becoming prime minister of the beleaguered state of Israel? And is this the political agony that the incumbent Bibi Netanyahu is wrestling with today in the face of the immense pressure being exerted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry? What can be said with greater certainty is that most Israelis, whatever their political persuasion, when they remember Ariel Sharon, will concur with these lines of Shakespeare: "We shall not look upon his like again."

 

 

 David Essing

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