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.
In August 2005, the Gaza disengagement plan was enacted along with the withdrawal from four settlements in the West Bank, but that was only supposed to be the beginning. According to a minister in Sharon’s government, during a December 2005 phone call the prime minister suggested, “Let’s divide [the West Bank] and take roughly one-third for ourselves, leaving two-thirds for the Arabs.” Sharon began to prepare for elections scheduled in March 2006, undeterred by a mild stroke. But on January 4, 2006, Sharon suffered a second stroke, a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He never regained consciousness.