SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Ariel Sharon has died.
Mr. Sharon's career began with the birth of his nation; he spent the last eight years in a coma after suffering from a stroke. The former general and prime minister of Israel was a towering figure in the history of his nation, both despised and beloved. Only near the end of his life did Ariel Sharon win the approval and even the admiration of a broad range of Israelis. Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Ariel Sharon was the quintessential Israeli, and the story of his life is really the story of the history of modern Israel.
MARK LEVINE: His career was defined by doing the dirty work that was necessary for the state of Israel both to be born and to survive.
SHUSTER: Mark LeVine is a professor of contemporary Middle East history at the University of California at Irvine. LeVine says Sharon's action as both a soldier and a politician reflected the innermost fears and desires of many Israelis about the nation they longed to establish in what was essentially a hostile environment.
LEVINE: They knew that in order for Israel to succeed and for Zionism to succeed, it involved necessarily a conflict with the indigenous population of the country that was never going to be neat or pleasant. He, unlike most Israelis, was not afraid to say that, was not afraid to act upon it. And in so doing, he challenged many Israelis who tried to live a much more modern, normal life that was free from the kind of powerful nationalistic impulses that he represented.
SHUSTER: Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 in what was then Palestine under the British Mandate. His parents, Shmuel and Devorah Scheinerman, had been Jewish immigrants from Russia after World War I. It was a hostile world the Scheinermans settled in, and Sharon learned about Jewish self-defense from an early age. He joined a Jewish paramilitary organization at 14. He would go on to a lengthy military career spanning five Israeli wars, starting with the war for independence in 1948, in which he was seriously wounded. Sharon's military career was marked by controversy, some say even insubordination. He was instrumental in forming the elite commando force, Unit 101, which mounted counterterrorist operations against Palestinians in the 1950s. He was called reckless with his own troops and with Palestinian civilians. But his operations in the 1967 and 1973 wars won praise. After the '73 war, he went into politics, helping to found the Likud, the right-wing party whose leader, Menachem Begin, was elected prime minister in 1977. Sharon was made a government minister and it was then that he became associated with an issue that would stick to him for the rest of his life - the settlements, says Samuel Lewis, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
SAMUEL LEWIS: He parlayed that job into the dominant figure in the promotion of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and relentlessly pursued his own scheme for building a network of settlements across the West Bank, to make it impossible ever to give the territory back to any Arab leadership.
SHUSTER: That certainly was Sharon's intention when he said these words in 1982 about the Israeli presence in the West Bank:
ARIEL SHARON: When it comes to security, we will stay there forever.
SHUSTER: Sharon became defense minister in 1981, and from the moment he took that post, it appeared that he was planning Israel's next war. The Palestinians in Lebanon, to Israel's north, were threatening Israeli territory, and Sharon wanted to end it. In 1982, he led the invasion of Lebanon. He declared that the operation was simply to secure Israel's northern border, but Samuel Lewis, an American ambassador to Israel at the time, says Sharon was not honest about his ultimate goals.
LEWIS: We were being told what they were doing by Begin, and actually Sharon was doing something quite different and not telling Begin the truth. And Begin was, his own credibility was plummeting with Ronald Reagan because he was really, I think, misled as to what Sharon's armies were actually up to.
SHUSTER: Soon Israeli forces pressed all the way to Beirut and set siege to the Lebanese capital. In an interview in 1982 with a British journalist, Sharon defended the operation.
SHARON: I think we have shown here in this operation more humanity than in any operation that has been done by the British; any war as I remember from the history.
SHUSTER: But the Lebanon war ended with one of the bloodiest incidents in the contemporary history of the Middle East. Lebanese Christian forces, allies of Israel, attacked the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut and massacred hundreds of Palestinians, including women and children, while Israeli officers looked on. Sharon protested his innocence, but a commission of inquiry in Israel later found him indirectly responsible and prohibited him from ever again holding the post of defense minister. In a 1983 interview with NPR, Sharon expressed regret about the massacre.
SHARON: In retrospect, it was a mistake. Then, we did not know anything. We even did not think that that could have happened. And if we would have known that could happen, we would never have let them in. And I was punished for that said, and I paid for that.
SHUSTER: In the same interview, Sharon was asked whether he wanted someday to be Israel's prime minister.
SHARON: I believe that in the future, I will try, but I'd like to tell you that maybe my main secret weapon is that I am much less ambitious than generally described.
SHUSTER: It was after these events that Sharon found himself in the political wilderness. He did not play a prominent role again in politics until the late 1990s, when he returned to government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2000, he decided to challenge Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud in a bid late in life to fulfill his ambition to become prime minister. And it was then that he made a fateful visit to the Temple Mount, or what the Arabs call the Noble Sanctuary, the site in the Old City of Jerusalem of both Jewish and Muslim holy places. The next day, rioting broke out in Jerusalem. It would mark the start of the second Palestinian intifada. The conflict soon mushroomed into outright warfare between Palestinians and Israelis. It would carry Sharon to election victory a few months later. Sharon's victory was hailed by the right, but he was vilified by the left. This is how peace activist Amiram Goldblum viewed Sharon at the time.
AMIRAM GOLDBLUM: He built a career, a whole career out of the politics and the culture of hatred. Everything that he looks upon is a battlefield where he has to conquer something or he has to fight someone and to show the other side that he's the winner.
SHUSTER: True to his history and character, Sharon initially pursued a hard-line military solution, eventually ordering the Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank in the spring of 2002. Those operations included confining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his compound in Ramallah. Gradually, Sharon began to see that he needed more than just military force to solve the problem of Palestinian aspirations and violence. He decided that Israel would unilaterally withdraw its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, and that operation was carried out in 2005. At the same time, he gave the impression that he was searching for a way to make peace with the Palestinians. But, Samuel Lewis says, it was always on his own terms.
LEWIS: When he's made up his mind to do something, he would always keep doing it. Nothing really could divert him. He might have to delay or wait but he would not change his course. And I think you saw that somewhat contradicted toward the end of his life when he changed course about settlements. But that reflected the realism and pragmatism, not the ideology because he was not a real ideologue at all. He was a tough military guy who believed in the security of the state of Israel.
SHUSTER: Sharon suffered a stroke in the midst of an election campaign in 2006, in which he abandoned the Likud to create a new political part. He was in a coma and on life support until his death today.
SIMON: That was Mike Shuster reporting.