After eight years in a deep coma following a 2006 stroke, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died today at age 85. Always controversial, the author of both military victories and misadventures, of the settlements and of the Gaza withdrawal had suffered a second and major stroke just a few weeks after a first minor one, and shortly before he was to lead a new political party to power. Ever since, Israel has waited to see when his body would finally surrender, something Sharon rarely did in any other context:
As a soldier, defense minister and prime minister, Mr. Sharon fought or commanded forces in every one of Israel’s military conflicts for more than half a century, beginning with its 1948 independence war, and was author of the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a politician, he built the infrastructure of the country’s controversial settlement campaign in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, then stunned friend and foe alike by dismantling part of the project he had long championed.
Through it all, Mr. Sharon commanded center stage, insisting at times that he alone knew what was best for the state of Israel and persevering over six decades to finally emerge as prime minister in 2001, after countless humiliations that would have long killed off the careers of less determined men. At the time of his stroke in January 2006, he was in the process of seeking to extend his time in office by forging a new centrist political movement based upon his personal popularity.
The man who chose the title “Warrior” for his autobiography was for much of his career the darling of the Israeli right, which chanted “Arik, King of Israel!” invoking his nickname and comparing him to the legendary biblical King David.
For decades, he used that support to undermine governments of both the rival Labor and his own Likud parties and advance his personal political agenda. But in later years, as he first organized Israel’s withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and made plans for pullbacks from parts of the West Bank, the right denounced him as a traitor.
The more dovish left, which had long feared and despised him, had begun to reevaluate his motives and policies and accord him a grudging respect. Meanwhile, for moderates on both sides of Israel’s bitter political divide, wary and exhausted after years of conflict and false dawns, Mr. Sharon came to embody the country’s eternal quest for security. While he did not always share their hopes, he understood and spoke to their fears.
Critics said Mr. Sharon suffered from a Napoleon complex and consciously encouraged a cult of personality that posed a threat to democracy. He insisted that he had never wavered from his primary principle of unswerving devotion to the state and to the Jewish people. But he said he had come to recognize that the view from the prime minister’s office was like the verse of a popular Israeli song: There are “some things you can see from here [that] you can’t see from there.”
CNN has two relatively lengthy but worthwhile retrospectives on Sharon and the controversies that surrounded his careers in the military and in politics:
Few world leaders manage to make it through a career without furious debates over their legacy, and Sharon will be the center of more debate (and fury) than most. In a sense, though, those debates over hard-liner positions in Israel didn’t sit in stasis with Sharon while he remained on life support, but instead transferred to Benjamin Netanyahu, who has followed Sharon’s path in large part (although not entirely) in his political absence.
The remarkable realization about Sharon’s passing is that not much has been resolved in the eight years that he’s been off the stage, and the nine-plus years since the death of Yasser Arafat. Despite Sharon’s gamble in pulling out of Gaza and dismantling the settlements, the situation there has grown substantially worse, and the settlement building in the West Bank makes the security considerations for Israel even more complicated. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority still vie for power, and while the wall has stopped the suicide bombers, it remains a blight on the political and natural landscape — a constant reminder of the stalled war between all sides, and an economic disaster for Palestinians regardless of its arguable value in other contexts. None of the issues that Sharon’s stroke left unresolved have moved much in any direction ever since. Would things have improved had Sharon been healthy for the last eight years, or would it have stalled anyway?