TCS Daily

Arik's Legacy

By Ariel Cohen - January 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Even if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survives his stroke, he is unlikely to head his newly established Kadima party in the March 28th parliamentary elections, or to lead Israel beyond that.

With Kadima losing support, many of its founders are likely to return to their original political homes on the left and right: Labor and the Likud. And these two historic protagonists will resume jockeying for power.

Sharon's contribution to Israeli security was tremendous. He was probably the best tactician and battlefield general Israel had since her birth.

Sharon is a man of great personal bravery and charisma. He was left for dead in the bloody Latrun battle of 1948, when newly-formed Israel was attacked by five neighboring Arab countries, and returned to become founder and leader of Commando 101 in the early 1950s -- a unit which revolutionized special operations in the Israeli Defense Forces (not to mention the world).

Sharon was a highly successful general in the Six Day War, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War he surrounded the 3rd Egyptian Army to the West of the Suez Canal against the direct orders of his superiors, who had blocked his career and squeezed him out of the military only a year prior. His flanking maneuver brought Egypt to the brink of collapse. This breakthrough in ground operations is studied in military academies the world over. This author heard many Israeli vets say, "I fought under Arik and I would follow him to hell."

He entered politics after the surprise Arab attack that started the Yom Kippur War. The event precipitated a crisis of confidence over Israel's lack of preparedness, and impelled Sharon to help create the Likud in 1975. Sharon's new party won its first victory in the 1977 elections and the late Menachem Begin became Israel's first non-socialist Prime Minister. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat arrived for his historic visit to Jerusalem, his first question at the Ben Gurion airport was, "Is Arik here?"

But Sharon often over-reached. The 1982 Lebanon War, of which he was the architect ?s Begin's Defense Minister, was a mixed bag for Israel strategically. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasir Arafat -- which had triggered the Lebanon Civil War in 1975 and been attacking Israel from South Lebanon -- was evacuated and then dispersed. However, as a result of Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance, hundreds of Israeli soldiers died.

Sharon's last hurrah was his unflinching leadership in putting down the Palestinian Terror War (the so-called "Second Intifadah") in 2001-2004. He was elected Prime Minister with huge landslides twice -- and served as a father figure to the embattled and insecure Israelis.

Twenty years ago, a veteran Israeli journalist Uri Dan, Sharon's friend for decades, said: "Those who did not want him as a Chief of Staff (of the IDF), will get him as Minister of Defense, and those who don't want him as a Minister of Defense, will get him as a Prime Minister." He was right.

All the while, Sharon was undergoing a change of world-view. After starting out as a hawk and supporter of Biblical Israel, he became a moderate after taking power -- almost a peacenik. Eventually he abandoned his own baby, the Likud, where he was losing support. He accepted President Bush's vision of a democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel. However, the 2005 Gaza withdrawal split Israeli society like never before. And the current riots and snowballing terrorist eruptions in Gaza demonstrate that his hopes for a Palestinian peace partner may have been the naïve cry of the heart of an old battle-weary veteran who lost too many friends and countrymen to wars and Arab terror.

Many believe that the Gaza retreat may cost Israel many lives if the terror-mongers now feel empowered. Israel's withdrawal under terror fire was perceived as a sign of weakness by the Arab street, and is likely to trigger another terror onslaught led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia. These death merchants have already promised that the "third Intifadah" will begin soon, while rocket fire and suicide bombings continue.

His optimism regarding redrawing Israel's borders may have been part of the can-do, overreaching personality which so many Israelis admired. In the end, his long-term strategy may have been miscalculated, and his panache destroyed by the frailty of his body.

Without Sharon's popularity and leadership, his new party is likely to perform poorly in the March elections, or may disintegrate. This is good news for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is likely to pick up the pieces and could become the next Israeli PM.

Sharon is also a man of truly Biblical fate. He loved his country and bled for it many times. He lost his first wife early and married her sister, Lily, with whom he lived happily for over twenty-five years. His young son shot himself by accident with his father's weapon and died in his hands. He was hounded by accusations of corruption. But he also vindicated himself by becoming one of the greatest Israeli leaders.

Sharon, often reviled during his lifetime by the left, and recently also by the right, he will nevertheless be revered as a great Israeli military and political leader.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.


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