Ariel Sharon's Legacy of Separation

The Israeli prime minister, who died on Saturday, did more than any other contemporary leader to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we know today.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looks out over the wall between Israel and the West Bank City of Jenin, on January 8, 2003. (Reuters)

Few figures could unite Israeli settlers and Palestinians quite like Ariel Sharon.

“God gave him what he deserved,” one right-wing Israeli told me several years after Sharon fell into a coma. “A Jew should not force a Jew from Jewish land,” the man exclaimed, in reference to Sharon’s decision to unilaterally remove Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005. For many Arabs, the name “Sharon” is associated with the word “massacre”—specifically with the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, which occurred after Sharon allowed Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, where they killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

So to some Jewish settlers, Sharon was a traitor; and to some Arabs, he was a butcher. Yet Sharon, who passed away on Saturday at age 85, after an eight-year coma, was also a political architect. More so than to any other contemporary figure in the region, the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian territories can be traced to Ariel Sharon.

Though Sharon helped form the hawkish Likud Party, he was never a right-wing ideologue. Born in 1928, Sharon joined a Labor Zionist youth movement and then the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that preceded the Israel Defense Forces. On the battlefield, he distinguished himself by playing a key role in the capture of the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, 1967, and 1973. He earned a reputation not only for his skill, pragmatism, and ambition, but also for his tendency toward insubordination and unpredictable behavior.

These traits also characterized his political career. He briefly left Likud but then joined the cabinet of Menachem Begin, Likud’s founder, in 1977, where he supported the settler movement. As defense minister, Sharon led the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. After reports of the Sabra and Shatila massacres surfaced, an Israeli commission determined that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for not preventing the bloodshed; mass protests soon forced Sharon to resign from his post.

Yet his career eventually rebounded—17 years later, Sharon found himself at the helm of the Likud Party. In 2000, in an event some blame for igniting the Second Intifada, Sharon visited the Temple Mount complex with a massive police escort, declaring that the holy sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque, would remain Israeli territory. He defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the 2001 elections on a platform that criticized Barak’s support for Palestinian statehood. Yet as prime minister, Sharon recognized that the status quo was unsustainable in terms of demography, diplomacy, and security. He thus endorsed the two-state solution and the international community’s “road map” for peace in 2003.

Still, the Israeli leader doubted that he could come to a lasting agreement with the Palestinians. Sharon’s plan ultimately involved circumventing the Palestinian Authority, not working with it; he became convinced that only a policy of “separation” from the Palestinians could secure Israel. Separation consisted of two stages. The first step was to build a massive barrier in the West Bank between the largest Jewish settlements and the bulk of the Palestinian population. Though this angered many on the Israeli right who opposed “abandoning” Jews in the West Bank, the idea enjoyed popular support. In an October 2003 poll, more than 80 percent of Israelis said they believed constructing fences and walls would significantly reduce or prevent suicide bombers from attacking Israeli cafes and buses.

Sharon had effectively sold Israelis on his policy of separation—the idea that Israel could insulate itself from the Palestinian problem on its own terms and according to its own security needs, without conceding to all Palestinian demands.

In 2004, Sharon announced that he was going to take separation—now termed “disengagement”—one step further. Israel needed to leave Gaza but, as he saw it, the Palestinian leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, was no partner for peace. Instead, Israel would unilaterally withdraw its forces from the territory and evict the 8,000 Jewish settlers who lived there among 1.3 million Palestinians. The plan elicited major protests on the right and forced Sharon to break away from Likud and form his own party, Kadima.

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Geoffrey Levin is a doctoral candidate at New York University’s Taub Center for Israel Studies.

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