Michael Oren: Ariel Sharon personified Israel's formative era

Roundup: Historians' Take

Irrespective of his prospects for recovery, Ariel Sharon has clearly ended his term as Israel's prime minister and as the leader of the nascent Kadima Party, which was expected to win a landslide victory in the coming national elections. His passing from public life represents not only the fall of the pre-eminent figure in Israeli politics but, more fundamentally, the conclusion the formative era in Israel's history--a period Mr. Sharon personified.

Mr. Sharon has been intimately identified with every major event in that history. An infantry officer in the desperate battle for the Jerusalem corridor in the 1948 War of Independence, leader of the paratroopers in the 1956 Sinai campaign, he rose to the rank of general and commanded divisions in the Six Day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As a government minister, he was the architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the primary force behind the settlement movement. With the sole exception of Shimon Peres, he has been a member of the Knesset longer than any other Israeli, and he remains unsurpassed in his ability to forge and maintain coalitions. He began his political career on the left, swung keenly right, and concluded in the center. Mr. Sharon, more than any single Israeli, represented the finest ideals of the Jewish state--its heroism, resilience and versatility--as well as many of its most controversial policies.

And, like Israel, Mr. Sharon was a ganglion of contradictions. The party he formed in 1977, Shlomzion, advocated negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the creation of a Palestinian state in territories captured by Israel in 1967.

Joining the Likud, however, then under the leadership of Menachem Begin, Mr. Sharon became an unremitting foe of the Palestinian organization and its leader, Yasser Arafat. A Palestinian state already existed, Mr. Sharon claimed, situated in a large part of what was formerly British Mandated Palestine and comprised of a large Palestinian majority--Jordan--and there was no need to establish another.

In the mid-1970s, he staunchly opposed the peace overtures of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and promoted the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied Sinai Peninsula. But the same Sharon also uprooted settlements and withdrew Israeli troops from Sinai in 1982 to fulfill the terms of Israel's peace agreement with Egypt. Several Israeli leaders, Begin included, feared that Mr. Sharon posed a threat to the country's democracy. Nevertheless, when a state investigation found him morally culpable for the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian militiamen in Beirut's Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon promptly complied with the court's finding and resigned....

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