Loved and despised – as great men so often are – Ariel Sharon was a polite bulldozer, a warrior-peacemaker, an avuncular tyrant, a bundle of contradictions. “The Lion of Israel.” The “Butcher of Beirut.” He defied stereotypes.
Whether Israelis admired or reviled him, Sharon, Israel’s 11th prime minister and greatest military strategist, accomplished things that no other Israeli leader can claim and shaped his country’s geographic and political boundaries as has no other Israeli leader since Ben Gurion.
As a military commander in the 1967 “Six Day” war, he helped save Israel by capturing the Sinai from Egyptian forces in a series of stunning maneuvers.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, he surrounded Egypt’s Third Army.
As prime minister almost three decades later, he may have saved Israel yet again, this time politically, by unilaterally withdrawing from occupied Gaza – removing some 9,500 Israeli settlers from Gaza and the West Bank in the process -- insisting that Israelis, not outsiders, would draw Israel’s borders.
He was larger than life, literally and figuratively. Standing 5 feet, 7 inches tall, weighing 250 pounds when I met him in 2004 – he loved life, and food, “all of it,” he would boast. Reporters lucky enough to have met him never forgot him.
“Call me Arik,” he disarmed me (and so many others) when I interviewed him to discuss the Gaza withdrawal.
The Bible was his true compass, his guide to all things, especially Middle Eastern politics, past and present.
He had just quoted something from it when he suddenly frowned. His translation was not precise, he told me.
Had he misquoted the sacred text? What was the correct phrase and translation, he asked his two aides taking notes at the meeting. But they didn’t have their Bibles handy. Terrible, he mumbled, gently chiding them.
Pulling open the middle drawer of his desk, he retrieved the book, thumbing through its well-worn pages. Ah! Here it was. Yes! He had used the proper word in Hebrew and translated it correctly!
My friend, Smadar Perry, the Arab affairs correspondent of Yediot Ahranot, Israel's largest daily paper, knew him well. She recalled his enormous courtesy.
“Am I disturbing you?” the Prime Minister would ask when he called to chat, or give her a story, or offer condolences for the death of a relative.
For Arabs, his legacy is complicated. Many hated him. They would never forgive him for his harsh tactics against them -- as defense minister in the 1982 Lebanon War and later on as a political leader overseeing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
In 1983 he was forced to resign after Israel’s Kahan Commission concluded that he was personally responsible for the 1982 massacre of some 3,500 Palestinian civilians by Phalangist Christian militias in the Sabra and Shaitla refugee camps.
He should have anticipated that letting bloodthirsty Phalangists into the camps would result in a horrifying massacre, they said. Some predicted that his career was over. As usual, they underestimated him.
As a political leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, Sharon championed the construction of settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. But as prime minister in 2001, he rethought his strategy.
He had few illusions that Palestinians, or other Arabs, for that matter, would ever voluntarily accept a Jewish state in their midst. But like Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s other great general-leader, he, too, sensed that Israel would need peace -- or a long-term enforceable truce -- to thrive, that land itself was not enough to guarantee security.
So he did that rare thing in politics: he changed his mind. He abandoned Likud and formed a new centrist political party – Kadima, or “Forward.”
He insisted on withdrawing from Gaza, abandoning some of the settlements on land his forces had reclaimed for Israel.
He anticipated a similar withdrawal from most of the West Bank. Given the faith so many Israelis placed in him, he might well have accomplished what he seemed so determined to do.
These were bold steps -- much in keeping with the man. Though 80 percent of Israelis supported his withdrawal from Gaza, some would never forgive him for it.
In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, led a campaign against him and the withdrawal..
Another, the leader of a group of conservative rabbis, placed an ancient curse on him – “Pulsa diNura,” – calling upon the Angel of Death to strike him down.
Unfazed, Sharon, the “Bulldozer,” bulldozed every settlement his forces had cleared except for several synagogues.
He scoffed at the curse. He would do what was necessary to assure Israel’s military strength and political security.
In January 2006, he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma from which he never awoke.
His son and other family members would visit daily, stroke his head, play music and read him poetry and passages from his beloved Bible. If he heard the words, they surely must have comforted him.