Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "was a man who was a great warrior but also a great man of peace," Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told Newsmax.
"I was actually with him in his office just weeks before he suffered his stroke — and we had a private meeting, at which he told me that he was planning to go further in his decision regarding Gaza, which ended the occupation of Gaza, and that he was anticipating also some unilateral steps in parts of the West Bank as well."
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Sharon, who was prime minister from 2001 to April, 2006 died Saturday at age 85.
He suffered a stroke in 2006 and had been on life support at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
Perhaps Sharon's most controversial policy was his disengagement plan that led to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. Nearly 8,000 Israelis from 21 different communities in the Gaza Strip and from four settlements on the West Bank were removed. Those who did not accept compensation packages and voluntarily gave up their homes were evicted by Israeli security forces. By September, the evacuation of both Gaza and the West Bank settlements was complete.
The resettlement marked the first time since Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 that it had relinquished Jewish settlements to Arab control.
"A lot of Israelis even today think it was a mistake not to leave Gaza — but to leave it unilaterally, not in exchange for anything from the Palestinians. Gaza has become a source of rocket fire," Dershowitz told Newsmax. "It's still a controversial move, but he was a George Washington figure in some ways. That is, a great warrior when Israel needed a warrior."
Dershowitz spoke about Sharon's role, as a commander in the Israeli Army, in the 1973 Yom-Kippur War, which began when Arab states led by Egypt and Syria attacked the Israeli-occupied territories on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.
"He helped turn around the war, which could have been an absolute disaster to Israel, a surprise attack on Yom Kippur," Dershowitz said, speaking of how Sharon had led Israeli forces across the Suez Canal to trap the Egyptian army.
"He turned it around by crossing the canal and going into Egypt."
But Sharon's wartime fierceness changed once he became prime minister in 2001.
"He moved much more toward peace, doing unilateral moving out of Gaza and forming a new party, a more centrist party, the Kadima Party, which ultimately resulted in [Ehud] Olmert being elected [prime minister] and Olmert offering the Palestinians an even better deal [in 2008] than the Labor Party had offered back in 2000, 2001," Dershowitz said.
"Of course the Palestinians didn't accept either of those deals," he added, "and that's why there is still an occupation and still no peace in the Middle East."
Dershowitz also commented on what was perhaps Sharon's worst time as a military leader — the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The lawyer said Sharon, who was then serving as defense minister, was deeply affected when he was found to be indirectly responsible for the deaths of as many as 3,500 civilians killed by Israeli-allied Christian militia in Beirut. The killings of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps led to his resignation as defense minister the following year.
Dershowitz said the incident may have played a role later in his proposal as prime minister to withdraw from Gaza.
"People forget that he didn't lift a weapon," Dershowitz said of the killings in Lebanon. "He didn't shoot a single person. He didn't order the shooting of anybody.
"What happened at Shatila and Sabra were that Lebanese Christians who had been massacred by Muslims previously, and whose leader had been assassinated, the Lebanese Christians took revenge — and they were the ones who killed people in Sabra and Shatila.
"Yet Sharon was blamed for it, and that had a big impact on his psychological approach," Dershowitz continued. "Perhaps, he wanted to vindicate his legacy, but he also thought he was doing the right thing, that the occupation of Gaza was serving no important security interest — and his focus was always almost exclusively on security."
But more broadly, Dershowitz said Sharon will be remembered primarily for providing Israel with strength — in times of both war and peace — and he paraphrased a portion of Psalm 29 to illustrate the legacy Sharon would leave behind.
"The psalmist said once, 'The Lord will give the Jewish people strength and only then will the Jewish people get peace,'" Dershowitz said.
"Sharon understood that. That for the Jewish people and for the Jewish state of Israel, strength was a prerequisite for peace — and he wanted to see both, both strength and peace.
"So he really ranks very high in the pantheon of great Jewish leaders, and the Israeli people and the world should recognize that."
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