Skip to main content

Sharon a warrior who sought peace

By Michael Oren, CNN Contributor
updated 12:16 PM EST, Sat January 11, 2014
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
  • Michael Oren: Ariel Sharon, who died today, had pivotal, enduring effect on Israel
  • He says as an Israeli warrior, he led troops in Six Day War, Yom Kippur War, gained fame
  • He says in political career, he opposed peace, eventually pivoting toward it
  • Oren: Two state solution best, but Israel can still end the occupation of Palestinians

Editor's note: Michael Oren is the former Israeli ambassador to the United States. His books include "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present."

(CNN) -- Written on every page of Israel's history, in ink and in blood, is the name Ariel Sharon. His life, which ended today after an eight-year coma, deeply influenced Israel's past. But even in death, Sharon will influence the future, as Israelis consider their options if the two-state solution fails.

During Israel's 1948 War of Independence, the handsome blond officer, known as "Arik," was shot and left for dead. He recovered and founded Israel's first commando unit, which conducted raids beyond Israel's borders. In the 1956 Sinai campaign, he led Israel's legendary paratroopers into clashes behind enemy lines.

Michael Oren
Michael Oren

A successful general in the 1967 Six Day War, he achieved world fame six years later by spurring Israeli troops across the Suez Canal to encircle the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War. The image of Sharon, still blond but now stout, his head wrapped in a bloodied bandage, became iconic. His heroism was uniquely Israeli, built by breaking rules as well as orders, and by surrounding himself with controversy and myth.

But Sharon's real legacy was made in politics. Here, too, he ignored the norms and forged his own often-tortuous path. He traversed the political spectrum, from the labor farm in which he grew up to the rightist Likud that he established with Menachem Begin. As agriculture minister in the late 1970s, he constructed dozens of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, gaining a reputation as an opponent of peace.

But then, as defense minister, he evicted thousands of Israelis from settlements in Sinai to fulfill Israel's treaty with Egypt. In 1982, Sharon masterminded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, by some accounts deceiving Prime Minister Begin, and besieged Beirut. An Israeli investigation implicated Sharon in the massacre of 800 Palestinian civilians by Lebanese militiamen and compelled him to resign.

I saw the two sides of Sharon, the bullheaded warrior and man of the people. I saw how Israelis were alternately repelled and captivated by him. I was stationed with the Israeli paratroopers in Beirut when we learned that Sharon wanted to visit the troops. Furious over what they regarded as a reckless war, my buddies indicated that the defense minister was unwelcome. Sharon never arrived.

But weeks later, while hosting Sharon at a base inside Israel, I watched amazed as he left the table to chat with the cook, about whom he remembered every detail.

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

Known even in Hebrew as the Bulldozer — as much for perseverance as girth — Sharon in 2000 burst into the political forefront. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had rejected Israel's offer of independence in all of Gaza, most of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem, and blamed Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount for igniting the Second Intifada.

Through the havoc wrought by Palestinian suicide bombers, Sharon pressed into the prime minister's office with Labor's Shimon Peres as his deputy. The once-impetuous soldier became the prudent statesman as Sharon waited through months of bombings before finally striking back. In April 2002, he ordered Israeli forces to eradicate terror and restore peace to Israeli neighborhoods.

Then Sharon, with characteristic audacity, pivoted toward peace. But failing to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, he decided to act unilaterally. The former champion of the settlements now proposed "disengagement" -- to uproot them, along with Israeli forces, from Gaza. This divided the Israeli public and drove Sharon to create his own party, which gained wide support.

In 2005, the residents of all 21 Gaza settlements were evacuated. Hamas subsequently took over Gaza and fired thousands of rockets at Israel. Still, an unapologetic Sharon was about to apply his unilateralist strategy to the West Bank when he suffered a massive stroke.

Today, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pursues a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Sharon's approach is once again being discussed. A growing number Israelis are asking, "What happens if the process fails?"

One solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. As in the disengagement from Gaza, the United States would endorse this move, but unlike in Gaza, most Israeli settlements would remain within Israel, and Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders. Of course, the preferable solution is two states for two peoples. But if that proves unattainable, then Israel can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace.

Even when comatose, Ariel Sharon was a constant presence for Israelis. Whether as the dashing commando, the farmer, the builder, the contrarian, and belated seeker of peace, he reflected them and embodied their story. And after his death, his brazen Israeli way of action lives on.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Oren.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT