The most revealing thing that Ariel Sharon has ever said may be this: "I remember well more than 50 years in this country," he once told the New York Times. "I do not remember one normal day."
Anyone who has visited Israel recently knows that it has had countless normal days. Almost every day, in fact, is a normal day. Normality is Israel's greatest achievement. But the Israeli opposition leader cannot accept it. Israel has grown rich, powerful, and secure. Sharon fixates on the idea of Israeli weakness. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have lurched slowly toward a final peace, Israel has made peace with Jordan and Egypt. Sharon still imagines his nation as an island in a sea of hostile Arabs. Sharon's commitment to abnormality helps explain why the old soldier still has the power—grotesquely on display last week, when his visit to the Temple Mount sparked deadly violence throughout Israel and the occupied territories—to throw his country into chaos.
Sharon—part Douglas MacArthur, part Richard Nixon, part hand grenade—is the ultimate sabra: aggressive, smart, charming, and brutal. Born in Palestine in 1928, "Arik," as he is known, was raised on a remote desert farm by hardheaded Russian immigrants. Fear of Arab harassment haunted his childhood and set his worldview. Other early Zionist leaders were animated by complicated intellectual and democratic principles. The farm-boy Sharon was blunter: He believed in Jewish strength. Jews have the right—God-given—to do anything to defend their homeland.
The tough-Jews philosophy was coupled with scorn for Arabs. In his autobiography, Warrior, Sharon depicts Arabs as infantile, timorous, and untrustworthy. As one former U.S. official who knows him puts it, Sharon has the same condescending disregard for Arabs that Southern plantation-owners had for blacks.
For most of Sharon's life, Israel tolerated and largely shared his ultramacho mindset. The Israelis fetishize Getting Things Done, and no gets more done than Sharon. He was a born soldier. He enlisted in the Zionist resistance at 14 and was wounded during the 1948 battle for Jerusalem. In the early '50s, Moshe Dayan selected Sharon to command an elite Israeli unit that retaliated against Arab terrorism. Sharon's unit raided Jordanian villages, murdered Arab civilians, and stopped the terrorist attacks. During the Six-Day War, his troops smashed bunkered-in Egyptian divisions in the Sinai, winning a critical battle. Sharon masterminded the counterattack across the Suez Canal that broke the Egyptian army and effectively ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (Military historians consider this one of the most brilliant battles of the century.) As security chief in southern Israel during the early '70s, he suppressed Palestinian resistance in Gaza with amazing brutality and effectiveness. Sharon bulldozed Palestinian houses, summarily murdered dozens of purported terrorists (without the pretense of judicial process), and stopped youth demonstrations by exiling parents of demonstrators.
Sharon displayed the same relentlessness when he turned to politics. While others talked, he created facts on the ground—to use the favorite Israelism. As Menachem Begin's agriculture minister, Sharon built the West Bank settlements that have been so controversial, thus ensuring that Israel would keep sovereignty over much of the occupied territories. Minister of Defense Sharon performed the dirty job of evicting settlers from the Sinai after the Camp David Accords. Sharon supervised the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the '80s. When Russian immigrants arrived in the early '90s, Housing Minister Sharon shanghaied billions of dollars to build 80,000 apartments for them. All his military and political labor advanced his two overarching goals: ensuring Israel's security and increasing his own power.
Many Israelis adored this. He was the "Bulldozer" and "Arik, King of the Jews." But his reputation for excess repeatedly dismayed Israelis, especially lefties. During the 1956 Suez-Sinai War, he exceeded orders and sent his troops into an ambush that cost dozens of lives. In 1953, his commandos killed 69 civilians in the Jordanian town of Qibya. Sharon claimed that he thought the Jordanians' houses were unoccupied when his soldiers dynamited them.
Israel's leaders tolerated Sharon's intemperance—can't make an omelet, etc.—until the 1982 Lebanon war. That invasion—known as Sharon's War—was supposed to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon and establish a compliant Lebanese state. Sharon did vanquish the PLO, but he reportedly attacked further than the Cabinet had authorized and misled Prime Minister Begin about it. Most damningly, Sharon was found "indirectly responsible" for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Beirut refugee camps. His troops had permitted Lebanese Christian militiamen to invade the camps for the slaughter. Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister.
The Sabra and Shatilla massacres, which confirmed the Israeli left's view that Sharon was demonic, would have ended anyone else's career. But Sharon has Nixonian resilience. Almost immediately after the massacre, he was back in the Cabinet. He shunted responsibility for Lebanon onto Begin, the United States, fellow generals—anyone but himself. He remained essential to Likud's coalition, because he represented an indispensable group. The ultra-right wing and the settlers treasure Sharon, and while they aren't numerous enough to control Israel, they're too numerous to be ignored. Sharon never gained majority support but could always claim the loyalty of 10 percent-30 percent of Israelis.
Sharon was redeemed for other reasons too. Like Nixon, Sharon came to be valued for pragmatism. Unlike most of his supporters, Sharon has no religious or ideological conviction that Israel must rule the West Bank. He cares only about national security, and that makes him willing to at least pretend to compromise. He bowed to the Camp David settlement and even negotiated with the Palestinians in 1998 as Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign minister.