Sharon was born on February 26, 1928, at Kfar Malal in Pre-State Israel. He joined the Haganah at the age of 14 in 1942 and commanded an infantry company in the Alexandroni Brigade during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. In 1953, he founded and led the “101” special commando unit which carried out retaliatory operations against Palestinian fedayeen. Sharon was appointed commander of a Paratroop Corps in 1956 and fought in the Sinai Campaign. In 1957, he attended the Camberley Staff College in Great Britain.
Between 1958 and 1962, Sharon served as Infantry Brigade Commander and then Infantry School Commander, and then attended Law School at Tel Aviv University. He was appointed Head of the Northern Command Staff in 1964 and Head of the Army Training Department in 1966. He participated in the 1967 Six Day War as commander of an armored division. In 1969 he was appointed Head of the Southern Command Staff.
Sharon resigned from the army in June 1972 but was recalled to active military service in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to command an armored division. He led the crossing of the Suez Canal which helped secure an Israeli victory in the war and eventual peace with Egypt.
Ariel Sharon was elected to the Knesset in December 1973, but resigned a year later, serving as Security Adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1975). He was elected to the Knesset in 1977 on the Shlomzion ticket. Following the elections, he joined the Herut party and was appointed Minister of Agriculture in Menachem Begin’s first government (1977-81). One of his priorities was to pursue agricultural cooperation with Egypt.
In 1981, Ariel Sharon was appointed Defense Minister, serving in this post during the Lebanon War, which brought about the destruction of the PLO terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon. In the realm of international relations, he was instrumental in renewing diplomatic relations with the African nations which had broken off ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In November 1981, he brought about the first strategic cooperation agreement with the U.S. and widened defense ties between Israel and many nations. He also helped bring thousands of Jews from Ethiopia through Sudan.
In 1983, Sharon resigned as Defense Minister after a government commission found him indirectly responsible for the September 1982 massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Phalangists.
Sharon remained in the government as a minister without portfolio and then served as Minister of Industry and Trade from 1984-90. In this capacity, he concluded the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. in 1985.
From 1990-1992, he served as Minister of Construction and Housing and Chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Immigration and Absorption. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the waves of immigration from Russia, he initiated and carried out a program to absorb the immigrants throughout the country, including the construction of 144,000 apartments.
From 1992-1996, he served as a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In 1996, Ariel Sharon was appointed Minister of National Infrastructure and was involved in fostering joint ventures with Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians. He also served as Chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Bedouin advancement.
While serving as Foreign Minister, Sharon met with U.S., European, Palestinian and Arab leaders to advance the peace process. He worked mostly to create and advance projects such as the Flagship Water Project funded by the international community to find a long-term solution to the region’s water crisis and a basis to peaceful relations between Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians and other Middle Eastern countries.
Following the election of Ehud Barak as Prime Minister in May 1999, Ariel Sharon was called upon to become interim Likud party leader following the resignation of Benjamin Netanyahu. In September 1999, he was elected Chairman of the Likud. He also served as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset.
On September 28, 2000, Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism to emphasize Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Palestinians maintained that Sharon came with “thousands of Israeli soldiers” and defiled a Muslim holy place, when in fact, Israel’s Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami permitted Sharon to visit the Temple Mount only after calling Palestinian security chief Jabril Rajoub and receiving his assurance that if Sharon did not enter the mosques, no problems would arise. Sharon did not attempt to enter any mosques and his 34-minute visit was conducted during normal hours when the area is open to tourists. Palestinian youths — eventually numbering around 1,500 — shouted slogans to inflame the situation. Some 1,500 Israeli police were present at the scene to forestall violence.
Following Sharon’s Temple Mount visit, the Palestinians, under the direction of Yasser Arafat, launched an unprecedented wave of violence and terror against Israelis, dubbed the “al-Aqsa Intifada“ by the Palestinians for its association with the al-Aqsa Mosque located on the Temple Mount. Palestinian leaders claim that Sharon’s visit sparked the violence, but on November 7, 2000, an investigatory committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was established to determine the causes of the violence and to make recommendations for calming the situation. The Mitchell Report issued in April 30, 2001, concluded “the Sharon visit did not cause the “al-Aqsa intifada.”
In a special election held February 6, 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister. He presented his government to the Knesset on March 7, 2001. After calling early elections to the 16th Knesset, which were held on January 28, 2003, Ariel Sharon was charged by the president with the task of forming a government and presented his new government to the Knesset on February 27, 2003.
After several years of bloodshed, terror, and stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, Sharon devised a bold plan that would ensure a higher degree of security for Israelis, and improve the lives of Palestinians. While Palestinian terrorism against Israelis was at its peak and going virtually unchecked by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, Sharon decided that Israel should act unilaterally to improve its security situation and reduce bloodshed.
His plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip called for the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers as well as the dismantlement of all settlements in the area. He also decided to withdraw from four settlements in northern Samaria. The idea was considered shocking because Sharon had been considered one of the “fathers” of the settlement movement. Several reasons have been offered for his decision. One is that he believed that Israel should always be on offense and take the initiative rather than react. He feared at the time that the upsurge in violence and inability to advance the peace process would provoke international pressure on Israel and prompt the United States to launch its own initiative. He also recognized that giving soldiers the responsibility for policing the disputed territories was not what they were trained for and put them in uncomfortable situations. Sharon also understood that Israel would give up Gaza in any peace settlement because it offered no strategic value and does not have the same religious and historical significance to the Jewish people as the West Bank. Perhaps the most important reason, however, was the fear of the demographic dilemma Israel would face if it did not give up Gaza; that is, the Palestinians would make up a majority or significant minority of the Israeli population and would have to choose between denying them the vote and ceasing to be a democracy or absorbing them and changing the Jewish character of the nation.
Journalists from around the world assembled outside Gaza in anticipation of a blood bath, believing that Jews would refuse to leave and would battle with their fellow Jews in the army. They were disappointed. Between August 16 and August 30, 2005, Israel safely and peacefully (with a handful of exceptions) evacuated more than 8,500 Israeli settlers. On September 11, 2005, Israeli soldiers left Gaza, ending Israel’s 38-year presence in the area.
At the time, the implementation of the disengagement plan was viewed as a success by most of the Israeli public, although it sparked bitter protests from ministers of Sharon’s Likud Party, causing a party schism. Facing bitter infighting in Likud, Sharon formally resigned from the party to form a new centrist party, “Kadima,” or “Forward” on November 21, 2005.
Following the Likud Party spilt, Sharon outlined the goals of his new party. One, he said, is to closely follow the United States-backed road map plan for peace with the Palestinians. Sharon declared that there will be no more unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank and insisted that Palestinian terrorist groups be disarmed and dismantled. The Kadima party platform calls for “maximum security and assuring that Israel be a Jewish national home and that another state that shall arise be demilitarized, with terrorists disarmed.”
“Sharon was a farmer, with a deep knowledge of and connection to the land — both its agricultural and biblical dimensions,” recalled U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller. He was proud of his knowledge and loved to talk about plants and animals at his farm at Shikmim in southern Israel.
In mid-December 2005, Sharon spent two days in a hospital after suffering a minor stroke, which doctors said caused no irreparable brain damage. However, on January 4, 2006, Sharon was rushed to the hospital following another, more serious stroke. Sharon suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, which caused extensive cerebral bleeding.
In response to his medical predicament, U.S. President George W. Bush said that Sharon was “a man of courage and peace,” and that “on behalf of all Americans, we send our best wishes and hopes to the prime minister and his family.” Sharon’s duties were then turned over to Ehud Olmert, who held a cabinet meeting on January 5, 2006, to signal the transfer of power.
Sharon remained hospitalized in a vegetative state from January 2006 until his death on January 11, 2014. He is survived by his two sons, Omri and Gilad.
Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
JTA, (November 21 & 29, 2005);
Washington Post, (November 22, 2005);
Jerusalem Post, (November 22, 2005; January 5, 2006);
Aaron David Miller, “Warrior, Farmer, Leader,” Foreign Policy, (January 11, 2014)
Photo © Ron Sachs