While Israel mourns the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a great military commander and strategist, some recall that the soldier-statesman was also a savvy politician who pulled off one of the most dramatic comebacks in memory.
Sharon died Saturday at 85, eight
years after a severe stroke left him comatose and forced him out of the prime minister's office.
Sharon is now being remembered as one of his country's greatest soldiers, who emerged triumphant in battle from the 1948 War of Independence to the Suez Crisis of 1956 to the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
But his political rebound at 71, an age when most of his contemporaries were retired, was in many ways more impressive than that of American comeback-kids Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
As defense minister, Sharon was widely blamed for two massacres in the 1982 Lebanon War, which resulted in the deaths of at least 800 Palestinian civilians — the exact number could never be determined — in refugee camps. Branded by enemies as the "Butcher of Beirut" and forced to resign as defense minister in 1983, Sharon spent years in lower-level government positions, dueling in court with those who sought to have him indicted for war crimes.
A decade before he won his country's top job, the very thought of a "Prime Minister Sharon" was considered out of the question. As housing minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon faced strong criticism in the United States for his expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
Furious at Israel over this policy, the administration of President George H.W. Bush snubbed Sharon on his diplomatic visit to Washington in May 1991. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp was the lone official to meet with the Israeli housing minister and did so by calling on Sharon at the Israeli embassy instead of inviting him to his office.
Other Israeli politicians simply left the public eye after suffering defeats. His two immediate predecessors as prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, resigned as leaders of their respective parties and from the Knesset after being ousted from power, and went into the private sector.
But Sharon remained in the Knesset and held such unglamorous posts as minister without portfolio and minister of national infrastructure. And he bided his time.
In 1999, the conservative Likud Party was beaten by a wide margin and Barak and his Labor Party took over. With Netanyahu resigning from party leadership and Likud in moribund condition, Sharon took over what then seemed a minor position as party leader.
But two years later, following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon and riots in the Arab villages of Northern Israel, the concept of a strong, no-nonsense leader was appealing to Israelis once again.
Likud returned to power and Sharon, at age 72, was elected prime minister.
Even in his 70s, Sharon demonstrated political flexibility. He developed a warm relationship with President George W. Bush, endorsed the Road Map for Peace backed by the United States, Russia, and the European Union, and declared that he would accept a Palestinian State.
He also began a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, which won Sharon the applause of old left-of-center enemies and charges of betrayal from traditional allies on the right.
In November 2005, clearly aware that Netanyahu and other rivals were trying to dislodge him, Sharon became the only sitting head of government to launch a new political party. The prime minister ended his lifelong association with Likud and formed the Kadima — Hebrew for "Forward" — Party. Polls showed Sharon as a heavy favorite to be re-elected as prime minister.
But a few weeks later, he had a minor stroke. Shortly after that, on Jan. 4, 2006, Sharon suffered the massive stroke that would leave him in a coma for the rest of his life. This plunged Israeli politics into unchartered terrain and spawned much speculation about what might have been had Sharon remained well and in power.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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