The funeral for Ariel Sharon, 11th prime minister of the State of Israel, took place on Monday, with dignitaries from 19 countries coming to pay their last respects. Sharon served as prime minister from 2001 until 2006, when a massive stroke left him in a comatose state until his death.
Sharon is remembered as an enigmatic figure, both as one of Israel’s greatest generals and field commanders, and later as a government minister and prime minister.
Often considered hawkish in his policies and known as a builder of settlements, particularly in Judea and Samaria, Sharon presided over the expulsion of Jewish communities in Egypt in the early 1980s following the signing of a peace treaty between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and then during the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
“He was a great general, and he really loved the state of Israel. He loved each and every square centimeter of the land. He loved our nation,” Yaakov Katz, a former Member of Knesset and chairman of Israel’s National Union Party, told JNS.org.
Affectionately known as “Ketzaleh,” Katz carried a special affinity towards Sharon, his former commander and then boss, first and foremost for saving his life when wounded in battle.
“During the war in 1973, under his command, I was working together with my command unit, and we fought against the Egyptians,” Katz recalled. “On the eighth day of the war, we defeated a large group of Egyptian soldiers, and captured a bridge leading from the eastern side to the western side of the Suez Canal. In that fight, we succeeded to kill all of the enemy soldiers, but I was wounded by a direct RPG missile hit that killed my driver and another man in my vehicle. I was practically cut into two pieces, and the truth is nobody believed I would survive. But my commander called to Sharon, and Sharon sent a helicopter, which saved my life.”
“For that reason, I have to be very careful when I speak about Arik Sharon, because he saved my life, and I appreciate what he did for me,” Katz said. “Since then, step by step, he assisted me on national and private operations that I have been involved with for the next thirty years.”
In his eulogy for the former prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres called Sharon “a man of the land.”
“He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe,” said Peres. “He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his
gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land.”
Sharon “had a central role” in building the Israel Defense Forces’ “heritage of valor” and “laid the foundations of the battle doctrine of the IDF, the doctrine of reprisal and initiative in the war against terrorism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
According to Katz, Sharon was a major force in rapidly building up Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, areas captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
“All his political life, I was a main consultant to Sharon regarding the building of communities over the Green Line,” Katz told JNS.org. “When he was Minister of Housing for two years, I served as his head of operations in Judea and Samaria. In those two years, we succeeded to build 60,000 units including caravans. During that period, the government allocated over 3 billion dollars to bring in the Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. We directed fifty percent of them to Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.”
“As one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim [settlement-building] movement, I can say that today we have three quarters of a million people in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights—and Sharon was a big part of that,” said Katz. “It will be impossible to evacuate this many people today because it is simply too much. Not that we don’t have Jews that are ready to do it, but three quarters of a million Jews are a large amount of people and it is growing every day.”
Yet despite his role as a conqueror and builder of settlements, it may be Sharon’s actions to dismantle settlements that he will be most remembered for. In public statements, dignitaries from around the world chose to acknowledge Sharon for his highly controversial political compromises, including the 2005 disengagement from Gaza—a move that displaced upwards of 10,000 Jewish residents and proved largely ineffective in creating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“As a general and politician, he was like a Caesar,” Katz told JNS.org.
“He saw himself as the main center of action. As long as he was in the center, anything could be done. The moment it looked like he might lose his influence, he was ready to push off a little bit on the principles and values he previously maintained, in order to keep himself in power,” Katz said.
When Begin offered Sharon the post of defense minister, Sharon “suddenly became ready and willing to destroy Yamit and all the settlements in Sinai, when just a few days before he was the one who stood behind the principle not to give up a single settlement,” said Katz.
According to Katz, the quality of doing what it takes to remain in power carried over to Sharon’s term as prime minister.
“Some of the people said he was pragmatic, but I believe more that he viewed himself as a Caesar, that everything he did was right, and if he thinks today that he needs to turn to the right, then everyone needs to follow him. And if tomorrow, he decides to move to the left, then again everyone needs to follow him—if you are a soldier, a friend, or an admirer. If you don’t do it, you become automatically a traitor,” Katz said.
“For me, Arik (as Sharon was known by those close to him) saved my life and did so much for me and for my institutions, and through the years he helped us so much with what we were trying to do ideologically, that even though in the end of his life when he was prime minister, everybody understands that he behaved cruelly and destroyed things which we believed in,” added Katz.
While Israelis must now unravel Sharon’s legacy, many within the Arab world chose to celebrate the death of one of Israel’s most decorated generals—citing Sharon’s role as defense minister during Israel’s lengthy incursion into Lebanon in 1982. During that period, Christians attacked Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatilla. An Israeli governmental inquiry held Sharon responsible, and he resigned his post before returning to politics years later.
“He was a man with a lot of power and strength, but not always used properly,” Katz said. “He may be remembered in Jewish history—not the way he was supposed to be remembered, yet he was a very special man, and I have a lot of love for him.” N
Ariel Sharon (1928-2014)
By Shoshana Bryen
Shortly after the 1982 Lebanon War, I was in Israel with a group of retired, high-ranking American General Officers, including the former Chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the former Commander, US Air Forces Europe; and the former Commander in Chief, US Army, Europe. We traveled across the north, into Lebanon and up to the Beaufort Castle (from which the PLO had been shelling Israel). The highlight of our program was to be a meeting with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) schedule, however, showed the meeting late in the afternoon the day before the Kahan Commission investigating the Christian-perpetrated massacres at Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon.
Surely, I thought, he had better things to do than meet with us.
But he arrived on time, relaxed and very willing to talk. After the scheduled hour, I made a move to thank him and end the meeting. “Why are you in a hurry?” he thundered. I suggested he might need the time for other business. “I’m spending tomorrow answering questions for the Commission,” he said. “And I since already know what I did and didn’t do and since I am planning to tell the truth, I don’t need time to study.” We stayed another hour.
It was the first of my 29 trips to Israel escorting retired American Flag and General Officers; 23 of them included Ariel Sharon.
He was comfortable with and enjoyed the American military and he was on our schedule annually until 1991, when he was Minister of Housing. I noticed the omission by our hosts at the MOD, but thought our timing was just bad. Late one night, my Israeli cell phone (used exclusively for outgoing so no one had the number) rang. It was Gen. Sharon. “Where are you?” he said. “In Tel Aviv,” I replied. “Why aren’t you in my office?” he demanded. I said he wasn’t on the schedule, foolishly suggesting that perhaps the MOD thought that as Housing Minister, he would be less relevant to our group that year. “Housing IS security,” he boomed. He believed that. Houses – not just “settlements” – but houses and their residents, citizens ready to serve the state and grow the country, were as much a part of Israel’s security as soldiers on the borders. He chaired the Knesset Committee overseeing Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. More citizens, more houses, more security.
We were in his office the next day.
As Foreign Minister and then as Prime Minister, Gen. Sharon was a fixture in the program of the Flag and General Officers. He preferred to meet late, when his other work was done. He asked as many questions as he answered – and he answered many. He wanted to know about 9-11, about Afghanistan, and later about the war in Iraq and Saddam’s WMD (he believed Saddam had them). He talked about Iran, Hezbollah and the “peace process.” In 2002, we saw the first video and photographs from the PLO weapons ship the Karine-A, captured by Israeli commandos. In 2003, we saw photographs of suicide bombing victims that had never been released to the press. “The deceased are entitled to their privacy,” he said somberly.
In 2005 we discussed the Gaza disengagement at length. It was, as usual, late in the evening and we were leaving for the airport directly from his office. I had provided one of my participants with a gift to present on behalf of the group at the end of the meeting. When the time came, I nodded to the General, who rose and said, “We would like to thank you, sir…” That’s all he got out. Sharon said, relatively calmly, “Sit down. We’re not finished yet.” It is hard to rattle the Commander of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), but the General was rattled. He sat. I said, “We have to be at the airport soon, we’re leaving.” “I’ll tell you when you’re leaving,” he said tartly. “You have lots of time.”
And so we did; but he didn’t. It was our last meeting with General Sharon.
My great takeaways were first that national security is not just about soldiers and their equipment. There is a complex relationship between the military, the citizenry, the government, and the economy – national mood counts and confidence of the people in its government counts the most. And second, when someone smarter than you tells you he’ll let you know when the meeting is over, listen – you’ll learn more that way.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center.