(January 13, 2014 / JNS)
The funeral for Ariel Sharon, 11th prime minster of the State of Israel, took place on Monday, with dignitaries from 19 countries coming to pay their last respects. Sharon served as prime minster from 2001 until 2006, when a massive stroke left him in a comatose state until his death on Jan. 11.
Sharon is remembered as an enigmatic figure, both as one of Israel’s greatest generals and field commanders, and later as a government minister and prime minister.
Often considered hawkish in his policies and known as a builder of settlements, particularly in Judea and Samaria, Sharon paradoxically presided over the dismantling of Jewish communities in Egypt in the early 1980s following the peace treaty between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and then during the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
“He was a great general, and he really loved the state of Israel. He loved each and every square centimeter of the land. He loved our nation,” Yaakov Katz, a former Member of Knesset and chairman of Israel’s National Union Party, told JNS.org.
Katz—affectionately known by the nickname “Ketzaleh”—had a special affinity for Sharon, his former commander and then boss, first and foremost for saving his life when wounded in battle.
“During the war in 1973, under his command, I was working together with my command unit, and we fought against the Egyptians,” Katz recalled. “On the 8th day of the war, we defeated a large group of Egyptian soldiers, and captured a bridge leading from the eastern side to the western side of the Suez Canal. In that fight, we succeeded in killing all of the enemy soldiers, but I was wounded by a direct RPG missile hit that killed my driver and another man in my vehicle. I was practically cut into two pieces, and the truth is, nobody believed I would survive. But my commander called to Sharon, and Sharon sent a helicopter, which saved my life.”
“For that reason, I have to be very careful when I speak about Arik Sharon, because he saved my life, and I appreciate what he did for me,” Katz said. “Since then, step by step, he assisted me on national and private operations that I have been involved with for the next thirty years.”
In his eulogy for the former prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres called Sharon “a man of the land.”
“He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe,” said Peres. “He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land.”
Sharon “had a central role” in building the Israel Defense Forces’ “heritage of valor” and “laid the foundations of the battle doctrine of the IDF, the doctrine of reprisal and initiative in the war against terrorism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
According to Katz, Sharon was a major force in rapidly building up Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, areas captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
“All his political life, I was a main consultant to Sharon regarding the building of communities over the Green Line,” Katz told JNS.org. “When he was Minister of Housing for two years, I served as his head of operations in Judea and Samaria. In those two years, we succeeded in building 60,000 units including caravans. During that period, the government allocated over 3 billion dollars to bring in the Jewish refugees from the Former Soviet Union. We directed fifty percent of them to Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.”
“As one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim [settlement-building] movement, I can say that today we have three quarters of a million people in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights—and Sharon was a big part of that,” said Katz. “It will be impossible to evacuate this many people today because it is simply too much. Not that we don’t have Jews that are ready to do it, but three quarters of a million Jews are a large number of people and it is growing everyday.”
Yet despite his role as a conqueror and builder of settlements, it may be that Sharon will be most remembered for his actions in dismantling settlements. In public statements, dignitaries from around the world chose to acknowledge Sharon for his highly controversial political compromises, including the 2005 disengagement from Gaza—a move that displaced upwards of 10,000 Jewish residents and proved largely ineffective in creating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“As a general and politician, he was like a Caesar,” Katz told JNS.org.
“He saw himself as the main center of action. As long as he was in the center, anything could be done. The moment it looked like he might lose his influence, he was ready to push off a little bit on the principles and values he previously maintained, in order to keep himself in power,” Katz said.
When Begin offered Sharon the post of defense minister, Sharon “suddenly became ready and willing to destroy Yamit and all the settlements in Sinai, when just a few days before he was the one who stood behind the principle not to give up a single settlement,” said Katz.
According to Katz, the quality of doing what it takes to remain in power carried over to Sharon’s term as prime minister.
“Some of the people said he was pragmatic, but I believe more that he viewed himself as a Caesar, that everything he did was right, and if he thinks today that he needs to turn to the right, then everyone needs to follow him. And if tomorrow, he decides to move to the left, then again everyone needs to follow him—if you are a soldier, a friend, or an admirer. If you don’t do it, you become automatically a traitor,” Katz said.
“For me, Arik (as Sharon was known by those close to him) saved my life and did so much for me and for my institutions, and through the years he helped us so much with what we were trying to do ideologically, that even though in the end of his life when he was prime minister, everybody understands that he behaved cruelly and destroyed things which we believed in,” added Katz.
While Israelis must now unravel Sharon’s legacy, many within the Arab world chose to celebrate the death of one of Israel’s most decorated generals—citing Sharon’s role as defense minister during Israel’s lengthy incursion into Lebanon in 1982. During that period, Christian militias attacked Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatilla. An Israeli governmental inquiry held Sharon responsible for not preventing the attacks, and he resigned his post before returning to politics years later.
“He was a man with a lot of power and strength, but not always used properly,” Katz said. “He may be remembered in Jewish history—not the way he was supposed to be remembered, yet he was a very special man, and I have a lot of love for him.”