Sharon still a figure of controversy
Wednesday, 24 May 2000 11:15 (ET)
By CLAUDE SALHANI
WASHINGTON, May 24 (UPI) --Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon continues to stir up controversy in Israel and throughout the Middle East.
Sharon has fierce supporters in his own country and many Palestinians have said they prefer to deal with him rather than his predecessor as nationalist Likud party leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Sharon's critics include left wing Israelis and Arab foes alike.
From his disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when he was defense minister, through his energetic efforts as Netanyahu's Minister of National Infrastructure to further boost Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Sharon has remained a lightning rod for political controversy.
Sharon came to fame in the 1950s when he commanded the elite commando Unit 101 of the Israeli Army and then its paratroop forces. He became a national hero in the 1956 and 1967 victorious wars against Egypt.
But he became front rank Israeli hero when he saved the day during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel simultaneously fought off surprise attacks by both Egypt and Syria. Sharon's tanks drove at great speed through the Sinai Desert, crossed the Suez Canal, encircled the Egyptian Third Army and when a ceasefire came, he was within striking distance of the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Sharon's daring tank tactics, which earned him the nickname of the Israeli Patton, thwarted initial Egyptian advances and blew away Arab moral and hopes of a complete Arab victory over Israel. He emerged as the hero who helped turn the tide of the unexpected war.
Born Ariel Shinerman in Kafr Malal, in what was still Palestine in 1928 to a family with strong Zionist sympathies, Sharon, --known as Arik to his friends -- joined the Jewish resistance force, the Haganah at an early age.
He fought in the War of Independence in 1948 that saw the creation of the State of Israel and was seriously wounded in the unsuccessful attempt by the infant Israeli army to capture the Fortress of Latrun, held by British-commanded troops of the Transjordan Arab Legion. After independence, Sharon stayed on in the army and became a pioneering Special Forces commander with the blessing of Lt. Gen. Moshe Dayan, army chief of staff from 1953 to 1957. Following a tumultuous army career, Sharon decided to enter politics in 1973. He joined the Gahal party and was active in the formation of the Likud bloc as a consolidation of nationalist and free-market parties of the secular right. His political career was interrupted by the Yom Kippur War, but he returned to politics a few months later to be elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Over the next twenty-five years, Sharon occupied several high-ranking positions in various governments, including the position of Defense Minister in 1982, when he launched his plans for the invasion of Lebanon and the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Following weeks of severe fighting and heavy bombardment, Sharon occupied the Lebanese capital and forced the PLO out of Lebanon. But it proved to be a short-lived victory. PLO forces were evacuated to Tunis from Lebanon following a cease fire. And only five years later, the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories launched their 1987 Intifada, or uprising that wore down the Israeli will to keep them occupied.
The Intifada gave PLO leader Yasser Arafat a victory he never imagined he would achieve.
Sharon's grand design for Lebanon backfired too. Israeli forces occupying the southern half of the country had to evacuate it in the mid-1980s under a National Unity Government led by Shimon Peres. Sharon's ambitious intervention led to the rise of the radical Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, or the Party of God in the region. For the past 18 years, it has relentlessly waged guerrilla campaigns to drive Israel out of the country once and for all.
Israel held tenaciously on to a nine-mile wide strip of southern Lebanon policed by an allied mostly-Maronite Christian militia, the South Lebanese Army. But Hezbollah over the past two decades has proved to be more than a match for both the SLA and the Israeli army.
By invading Lebanon to eradicate the Palestine Liberation Organization, Sharon believed he would be securing Israel's northern towns and settlements from attacks. But the void he created by expelling the PLO in 1982 was filled instead by the far more militarily formidable Hezbollah, backed by both Syria and Iran. It has proved to be a far greater and threatening adversary than the PLO ever was.
Unlike the Palestinians who were never fully integrated into Lebanese society, and were regarded as foreigners by the Lebanese, Hezbollah fighters commanded strong popular support. With deep roots and strong family connections embedded in the villages bordering Israel, the Shiite militiamen could depend on the people's support and trust.
After 22 years of Israeli occupation of southern regions of Lebanon in one form or another, Hezbollah has now managed to drive the Israeli army out of the country entirely. Newly victorious, it now poses a greater threat to Israel's northern towns and settlements than ever before.
Ironically, Sharon could now benefit politically from the results of disastrous 1982 policy miscalculations. As chief opposition leader, he stands to pick up support if the peace process with both Syria and the Palestinians collapses.
Right now, it is Prime Minister Ehud Barak who is under fire in Israeli politics for his own miscalculations over Lebanon. By announcing a deadline a year ago to end Israel's military presence in southern Lebanon, he strengthened Hezbollah's determination and trapped himself in a policy that could now bring his country's northernmost towns and settlements under a new wave of Hezbollah artillery and terror attacks.
Sharon's 1982 dream of establishing a lasting peace for the north of Israel by redrawing the political map of Lebanon has long since collapsed. But he could yet ride to power as Israel's current leaders fail in their own efforts to grapple with the mess his 1982 policies created.