Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Ariel Sharon's brilliant moves and disastrous mistakes

By Frida Ghitis
January 11, 2014 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a decorated warrior who also took steps for peace, died Saturday, January 11, after eight years in a coma. Sharon was 85. The former general had been hospitalized since suffering a stroke in January 2006. Here, he meets with Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv a month before the stroke. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a decorated warrior who also took steps for peace, died Saturday, January 11, after eight years in a coma. Sharon was 85. The former general had been hospitalized since suffering a stroke in January 2006. Here, he meets with Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv a month before the stroke.
HIDE CAPTION
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
Ariel Sharon: Israeli soldier, statesman
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Ariel Sharon reflected the history of Israel -- its trauma and its creativity
  • He took bold, risky action and made brilliant moves and disastrous mistakes, she says
  • Ghitis notes Sharon's military wins, his reckless decision that ended in a massacre
  • She says at end of his career, he broke with hard-liners and sought solutions to conflict

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- If you can define Ariel Sharon's legacy in one line, citing just one of his dramatic actions, then you have missed most of the man.

The former Israeli prime minister led a life that looks much like the history of his country, filled with trauma, heartbreak, creativity, bloodshed and transformation. He aroused intense hatred from his enemies and profound admiration from his followers. He had strong opinions, took bold, risky actions. He made brilliant moves and disastrous mistakes.

Sharon stood at the center of the greatest disputes, the most feverish controversies in the country's history. And then he stunned the world with a radical change of heart.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The brazen right-wing hardliner remains a target of hatred for many in the Arab world. And yet, when he suffered a devastating stroke in 2006, he had undergone a breathtaking political conversion. Once a major proponent of the plan to build Jewish settlements in territories captured during the 1967 Six Day War, he had decided it was time for Israel to withdraw from much of the territory.

As he told the New York Times' William Safire in 2004, he didn't believe the Palestinian leaders would respect a peace agreement, but he didn't want Israel to rule over millions of Palestinians. So, he said, "I discussed this between me and myself and came up with a new initiative." Initially, nobody liked his idea very much. "In Israel, the right does not like me to do it, and the left cannot do it," he said, "but you don't wait forever."

Despite bitter protests from his former allies and stiff resistance from the settlers, he carried out the "Disengagement" in 2005, removing every single settler and every Israeli soldier from the Gaza Strip. And he cryptically spoke of more "painful compromises" to come. "We yearn for peace with our neighbors," he said to Israelis, "even at the price of painful concessions." There is every reason to believe he was preparing to withdraw Israeli settlements from much of the West Bank, as well.

Had Sharon stayed in office, the Israel-Palestinian conflict would look very different today.

Sharon and Arafat: Enemies to the end
Ariel Sharon: The politician
Ariel Sharon: The warrior

Sharon embodied the Israeli dilemma of how to obtain peace while maintaining security. As he had predicted years earlier, the withdrawal from Gaza ultimately turned the territory into a launching pad for attacks against Israeli towns. And yet, few Israelis wish their country still occupied the Strip.

The larger-than-life prime minister helped his country survive in a deeply hostile region, where Israel's neighbors made it clear from the day the state was founded that they would find it the happiest of outcomes if the Jewish state would cease to exist. But he also drove Israel into terrible quagmires.

Barely 20 years old in 1948, he sustained multiple injuries fighting in a war against half a dozen Arab countries, which attacked the moment Israel declared its independence.

In 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian armies crossed into Israel on Yom Kippur, while much of the country was fasting for the calendar's holiest day, Israel appeared at risk of falling. Egyptian forces were headed for Tel Aviv. It was Sharon who devised and executed a plan to cross the Suez Canal, cut off and encircle part of the Egyptian army, a plan that helped Israel win the war and pave the road to peace.

He suffered head injuries in battle but kept on fighting. Pictures of Sharon with his head bandaged while winning the war became iconic, a metaphor for a country battered, creative, resilient.

He was the defense minister who carried out the withdrawal of all Israelis, including settlers, from the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt.

The darkest, most destructive chapter in Sharon's life unfolded in Lebanon in 1982 when he was defense minister. It is by that chapter that most Arabs remember him. Back then, Israeli civilians were coming under constant attack from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, which had become a state-within-a state inside Lebanon. Sharon launched an invasion to remove the PLO, allying Israeli forces with Lebanon's Christian militias, the Phalangists.

Israeli forces allowed Phalangist fighters to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Beirut to clear out Palestinian militias. Instead, the Phalangists committed horrific massacres of civilians.

Contrary to what many believe, Sharon had no knowledge that the massacres would occur. An Israeli commission of inquiry found that despite previous excesses by the Christian militias, Israel had concluded that Phalangist forces had reached a stage of maturity that would "ensure that such actions would not repeat themselves." Given the sectarian passions, it was reckless to allow the Christian militias into the camp.

The Israeli inquiry headed by the country's President of the Supreme Court, the Kahan Commission, found Sharon bore "personal responsibility" and recommended his removal from office. Israelis were seething at him and their government. He rejected the charges and refused to step down. Israeli peace activists launched protests to push for his removal. When a hand grenade was detonated in one demonstration, killing an Israeli protester, Sharon finally stepped down. Eventually, Sharon rose again.

He had never cared much what people thought about him and was never one to follow ideological fashion. That was probably a result of his childhood. When he was born in 1928, his parents had settled in a socialist farming community, but rejected their neighbors' views on communal living. Sharon and his family were outsiders in their own home. He learned to think for himself and follow his instincts rather than the crowd.

He had reached the height of his career in 2006 when it suddenly ended from a massive stroke that put him in a coma.

Before his illness, Sharon had found a new path. He broke with his rightist party, the Likud, in a rift that put him on the opposite side of other hardline stalwarts such as today's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon created the Kadima (forward) party ahead of elections he was poised to win in a landslide.

When he was incapacitated, Kadima won. His deputy Ehud Olmert became prime minister and carried on with peace talks, which ultimately foundered. Sharon had hand-picked Tzipi Livni to join him in Kadima. She is now a leading advocate of concessions for peace and member of Israel's negotiating team.

Despite his missteps, Israelis trusted Sharon as a strong defender of their security. That meant that when he was prepared to take risks for peace, they were ready to join him. That's why he won elections while vowing to undertake "painful compromises." That's why it was so demoralizing when he suddenly left the stage. Israelis, including Netanyahu, know that peace will not be possible without some risk-taking. The question is the extent of the danger they are prepared to accept.

His life showed the complex link between security, peace and politics. And he showed once again that it is often the fiercest warriors who take risks for peace. It was another Israeli right-wing leader, Menachem Begin, who made peace with Egypt. It was Yitzhak Rabin, a respected general, who shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn.

It was Sharon, an architect of the settler movement, who said settlements had to be removed. He left a complicated legacy, defending his country from those who would destroy it, and taking on those who disagreed with his controversial views at home.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT