Ariel Sharon, in a coma since January 2006, has fallen into critical condition and likely won’t live much longer. But his impact on Israel will last much longer. For most of the world he will always be a villain, but his legacy in Israel is more complicated. He had a catalytic effect on Israeli politics at least twice: in 1973 and in 1982. His formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud might be considered as contributing to a third major shift in Israeli politics.
Sharon was regarded as a war hero for a long time. Like most of Israel’s early leaders, he participated in the 1947-19 War. In the early 1950s he formed the famous/infamous Unit 101, a small guerilla unit whose mission was to retaliate against attacks by Palestinian terrorists and militants. It was, like all of Sharon’s activities, an aggressive enterprise. In 1953 he led Unit 101 on a retaliatory raid into Qibya, the West Bank (at the time part of Jordan). Scores of civilians were killed, solidifying Sharon’s reputation as someone who simply did what he believed he had to do, regardless of the consequences. Unit 101 was disbanded soon after, but some have argued that it was a major step in the process leading to the 1967 War.
As a commander in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he was daring, insubordinate, and—again—aggressive (critics would say reckless). He performed similarly in the 1973 War, engineering a crossing of the Suez Canal that many believe turned the tide of the war in Israel’s favor. All of this earned him a well-respected and even admired reputation in Israel that he later built on for his political career.
It was about the same time that Sharon played an important role in his first shifting of Israeli politics. He was instrumental in the formation of Likud in 1973, an amalgamation of several parties on the right end of the political and economic spectrums. Until then, the leftist Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) had dominated the Israeli political system, serving as the senior partner in every government since 1948. Part of the reason the right had been unable to challenge Mapai/Labor was because it was divided into many smaller parties.
But Likud’s formation changed the political equation. Pushed by a series of social, demographic, and economic changes within the Israeli population and facilitated by the capture of the West Bank in 1967 and then the 1973 War, which clinched for many Israelis the sense that Mapai/Labor had stagnated and was out of touch with contemporary Israel, Likud’s founding made the right a viable political contender. In a shock to the political system, Likud won the 1977 elections with 43 seats to Labor’s 32, inaugurating an era of rightwing prominence that—despite National Unity Governments in the 1980s and Labor wins in 1992 and 1999—continues to this day.
Likud’s victory also served as the vehicle for religious Zionists and secular nationalists to more easily pursue their dreams of Greater Israel. Sharon, of course, played a critical role in this process, too, encouraging Israelis of all ideological and political stripes to move to the West Bank and Gaza.
Sharon’s second legacy was to change the sense of Israel’s security position. Prior to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israelis widely perceived their conflicts to be wars of “no choice” (ein breira). That is, they were forced into them in order to defend their security and even survival. 1982 was different: it was the first war of choice, and as such changed the perception of the Israeli military and of Israel’s own behavior and, indeed, its very identity.
Launched ostensibly in response to an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to the UK, it was really an effort by Sharon as Defense Minister, Raful Eitan as IDF Chief of Staff, and perhaps a few others (questions remain about how much Prime Minister Menachem Begin knew or suspected) to reorder the Lebanese political system and elevate the Maronite Christians to unchallenged leadership in the country. The Maronites would, it was presumed, be staunch allies of Israel and thus close down part of its northern border to Arab attack.
But the messy unfolding of the war—which included a direct invasion of Beirut, Israel’s indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugees camps, and the occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon until 2000—galvanized opposition to the war. It led to the largest demonstration to that point in Israel’s history against the war. With the IDF’s actions bleeding into riot control and policing in the first intifada soon after (1987), the conceptualization of Israeli security policy was irrevocably changed.
One could add that Sharon’s third legacy was the formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, after the summer withdrawal from Gaza. Designed to be a vehicle for Sharon’s plans for partial withdrawal from the West Bank, it would be too much to say that Kadima upended the Israeli political system. But in 2006 it became the first party that wasn’t Mapai/Labor or Likud to form the government. Its electoral strength and popularity have declined sharply since then (it’s currently at two seats in the Knesset), but it might be said to have facilitated the decline of Labor and, to a lesser extent, Likud.
Much ink will be spent on analyzing Sharon’s personality and policies. He was certainly a polarizing figure, disliked and mistrusted even in Israel. But there is no denying the effect he had on Israeli politics.