Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died this morning after spending the past eight years in a permanent vegetative state following a stroke. He was 85.
Sharon was one of the great figures in Israeli military history having fought in the 1948-49 War of Independence and the Suez War. By 1967, Sharon was a Major General and was a key figure in developing Israel’s military strategy during the Six-Day War and would also play a prominent role in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Originally sympathetic to the Labor Party, Sharon politics gradually drifted rightward and by 1973 he was involved in the founding of the Likud Party although he would be an adviser to Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin into the mid-1970s. Sharon was elected to the Knesset in 1977 under the banner of his own party Shlomtzion which disbanded when Menachem Begin appointed him Minister of Agriculture.
Following the 1981 elections, Begin appointed Sharon Minister of Defense. Sharon would become an internationally known figure the following year during the War in Lebanon. Sharon came under fire following a massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982. The massacre was carried out by a Lebanese Maronite Christian militia known as the Phalanges. While Sharon nor any member of the Israeli government ordered the Phalanges to massacre Palestinian civilians, the Kahan Commission found Sharon indirectly responsible because he was aware the Phalangists had entered the camps and for not taking steps to ensure civilian safety. Sharon resigned as Minister of Defense early in 1983.
Although Sharon continued to serve in various cabinet portfolios under both National Unity and Likud governments, he remained a marginal figure in Israeli politics until 1999 following the defeat of the Netanyahu government by Ehud Barak. While leader of the Official Opposition, Sharon visited the Temple Mount and was blamed for starting the Second Intifada although the PLO had planned this well before Sharon’s visit. Nevertheless, Sharon would become the bête noire of the Left after this event and following his victory over Barak to become Prime Minister in 2001.
Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister is best remembered for his engagement in the Roadmap to Peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas facilitated by the Bush Administration, the EU and Russia. Late in 2004, Sharon announced a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the following year settlers were forcibly evacuated by the IDF. He described these acts as “painful concessions.”
Unfortunately, the unilateral withdrawal only resulted in more pain. Violence against Israel escalated especially after the election of the Hamas government in January 2006. This violence continues to this day.
The political fallout was such that late in 2005 Sharon would resign as leader of the Likud Party and found a centrist coalition called Kadima with fellow Likud, Labor and MKs from smaller parties. In January 2006, only two months after Kadima was established, Sharon suffered a stroke which incapacitated him for the rest of his life. Ehud Olmert succeeded Sharon as leader of Kadima and as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu would succeed Sharon as Likud Party leader and would later return to the Prime Minister’s office which he currently holds.
Only months after Olmert took office, Israel was engaged in a war with both Hamas in Gaza and with Hezbollah in Lebanon. With Olmert’s poor handling of that conflict one can only wonder what would have happened in those circumstances had Sharon not been incapacitated. Would Hamas and Hezbollah have embarked so brazenly had Sharon still been in charge? We will never know.