Skip to main content

Sharon a warrior who sought peace

By Michael Oren, CNN Contributor
January 11, 2014 -- Updated 1716 GMT (0116 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
  • 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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT