A life of ironies: The legacy of Israeli icon Ariel Sharon


A photo taken in January 1974 on the right bank of the Suez Canal shows Israeli general Ariel Sharon a few days before he left the army to become a politician.



JERUSALEM — Dissonance.

That is the word chosen by David Landau, the Israeli author and journalist, when asked to describe the essence of Ariel Sharon.

"The dissonance between what people expected and what they got from him," Landau said.

The final turnabout in Sharon's life — when against all odds he became prime minister of Israel and in 2005 decided to vacate the very settlements he had built in Gaza — "was the most dissonant of all," according to Landau.

Israel's storied military leader and onetime prime minister, known locally as Arik, died on Saturday at 85. Sharon had been unresponsive and in a coma since a 2006 stroke, but until this month had remained in a relatively stable physical state.

Sharon was often referred to as The Bulldozer, a nickname coined as much for his personal style as for the bluntness of his views; admirers called him the King of Israel, a moniker later taken up, with heavy irony, by his detractors — before the irony was pulled from under their feet as he led Israel to abandon Gaza, losing his government and his party along the way.

He took the losses in stride, calling his new party "Kadima," meaning "Forward."

More from GlobalPost: Ariel Sharon: 'The Bulldozer' to some, 'Butcher of Beirut' to others

Landau — whose biography "Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon" published Friday with uncanny timing Landau describes as "embarassing" — says that Sharon's greatest legacy as a politician is "the constitutional realignment" established by Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

During a conversation with GlobalPost in advance of his book's release, Landau shook his head at the numerous ironies contained in the life of a hothead general who was almost dismissed for insubordination during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — which he is now credited with winning — who went on to become the man who reestablished the proper hierarchy of Israeli power.

"Towards the end he realized 'I'm the PM and this settler movement is thwarting me,'" Landau said, smiling wryly. "He came to the very determined conviction that he is going to arrogate back to himself the powers to govern. He'd never realized it before, when he was exhorting the young settlers to "take the hills.'"

"His legacy is the assertion of the legitimate constitutional power of a sovereign state to govern. That power in a democratic state should be wielded by the PM. He was furious when he found out that in Israel, the tail was wagging the dog."

Those who admired Sharon for his audacious military exploits and devil-may-care political earthiness — and those who despised him as a reckless, obstinate extremist — were alike struck by his physical vigor, cheery countenance and hearty, oversized appetites. Countless visitors, from lowly journalists to heads of state, would deliver dazed accounts of having been served an entire, newly slaughtered lamb at Sharon's farmhouse table.

Sharon was described by friend and foe alike as a force of nature. "Throughout our meeting, Sharon, whose appetite is legendary, plied me with food and drink, and by the time I headed home I was undoubtedly several kilos heavier," reported the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit in 2006. "As I thought about our conversation, I came to the conclusion that one explanation for Sharon’s power is that he is organic." 

More from GlobalPost: Ariel Sharon: A life of fighting and farming, in pictures

In 2006, at the age of 77, Sharon was jowly and overweight but surprisingly robust. He walked with a briskness that belied a huge belly. The massive stroke that felled him later that year, at the peak of his political power, left the nation he led stunned and unmoored. 

He endured the longest, most outlandish purgatory in modern political history: persisting after his stroke in a vegetative state for eight years, silenced and sustained only by a feeding tube, as "this is what Arik would do" became a common Jerusalem byword.

Knowing Sharon, it should perhaps come as no surprise that even after a dire physical setback, his constitution did not flag for years.

He developed a blood infection and kis kidneys began to fail on Jan. 1. His deterioration over the last 10 days created a sort of coda to the limbo of his final years. 

As at the time of his 2006 stroke, a daily vigil over Sharon's condition engrossed Israel since his steep decline was announced.

Zeev Rotstein, the director of the Sheba Medical Center where Sharon was being treated, said Jan. 5, “We knew he had a good heart, and now we know he has a strong heart.”

On Jan. 6, Rotstein said, "Another 24 hours have passed and the situation is clear. … Despite his heart function being stabilized, we have not seen such stabilization in the functioning of the kidney, liver, lungs and other critical organs."

Sharon would need "a miracle," Rotstein said, "to survive." Doctors said Sharon was in his final hours.

As usual confounding anyone who pretends to describe him, Sharon continued to hang on five days' more. A cartoon published this week in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz shows a revived Sharon smiling and raising an eyebrow at his son, Omri, as the two sat in a hospital room.

"We drove them crazy," the former prime minister says.