Ariel Sharon in November 2000. Photographer:  Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.
Ariel Sharon in November 2000. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News.

Shortly after the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 -- an uprising allegedly, though not actually, triggered by an infamous Ariel Sharon walkabout atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem -- I was visiting Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel for the harvest holiday of Sukkot. Sharon, who died today at 85 after eight years in a stroke-induced coma, had erected a sukkah -- a temporary open-air hut meant to serve as a symbolic shelter -- that could seat 200 people. He was the leader of the Likud party then, contemplating a run for prime minister, and the sukkah was overflowing with party activists. The mood was celebratory. At one point, a small group of young activists took up a chant: “Arik, King of Israel,” using Sharon’s nickname. Many members of the Likud Knesset faction were present. I sat for a while with one of the toughest Likud hardliners, Uzi Landau, who was in a gloating mood.

The Oslo peace process had more or less collapsed by Sukkot of 2000. Ehud Barak, who was then prime minister, had returned to Israel empty-handed from the Camp David peace talks a couple of months earlier. He had offered Palestinian negotiators most of what they said they wanted, but Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, left Camp David without even making a counter-offer. Barak was suffering in the polls, and Sharon saw a chance to strike. I asked Landau, who was one of Sharon’s key supporters, what he thought about the demise of the peace process. “Oslo is Munich, and Arik is Churchill,” he said.

Later, I would ask Sharon if he agreed with Landau -- not about the Churchill comparison, but about the notion that Bill Clinton, who convened the Camp David talks, and Ehud Barak, were trying to do to Israel what Neville Chamberlain did to Czechoslovakia. “There are people out there who don’t understand the true intentions of the Palestinians,” Sharon said. “I am not one of them. They want to destroy Israel. They want our country.”

Flash forward five years. Sharon, now prime minister, was about to do something few people could ever have imagined him doing: He was preparing to unilaterally evacuate the Gaza Strip of all Israeli settlers and soldiers. This was shocking because it was Sharon, as a cabinet minister a quarter-century earlier, who had first planted Jewish settlers in Gaza. He believed, as he had written in his autobiography, that Gaza, which was captured by Israel from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, remained indispensably important to Israel’s security. “What will we do once we withdraw from Gaza and find, as we inevitably will, that Arafat or his successors have stepped in and that squads of terrorists are again operating from there into Israel, murdering and destroying?” he wrote. “What will we do when the Katyusha fire starts hitting Sderot, four miles from the Gaza district, and Ashkelon, nine miles from Gaza, and Kiryat Gat, fourteen miles from Gaza.”

Sharon felt a special affection for the Gaza settlers, who in his mind were rough and resilient pioneers serving as a picket line along Israel’s southern flank. And he had fond memories of fighting terror in Gaza, where he was, for a while, inordinately successful.

“Once, we captured a Lebanese fishing boat,” he said in the course of a long and nostalgia-filled conversation with me about his fighting days. “We filled it with Lebanese food and newspapers and we put our soldiers in it, dressed as Arabs, who spoke Arabic. And they landed on the beach in Gaza, and the Palestinians hid them. They thought they were their people, fugitives. And we were pursuing them ourselves, making believe they were hunted terrorists. The Palestinians took them to meet an important group of terrorists in the northern part of the Gaza district. And when they met them our soldiers killed them. Then they were evacuated out of Gaza. You have to think of things like that. You have to be creative.”

Sharon’s decision to evacuate the settlers of Gaza, and remove the army, was seen by his critics in the Likud, and in the parties to the right of the Likud, as proof that he had gone mad. One of his most caustic critics was Landau, the man who five years earlier described Sharon to me as a latter-day incarnation of Churchill. “Arik is making a joke of his party and a joke of his beliefs,” Landau told me when I interviewed him shortly before the evacuation. “He is destroying himself, destroying his party and destroying Israel’s security, and for what? So that he will be popular in Europe?”

This idea that Sharon had changed in some profound and mystifying way was popular not only with his critics on the right, but even among some of those in the Israeli center, and on the left.

In the coming days you will read that the Gaza withdrawal, and the cleaving of the Israeli right that it triggered -- Sharon and his allies would leave the Likud party, and form their own, Kadima -- represented a reversal of everything Sharon had once stood for. This is wrong: The unilateral evacuation was of a piece with everything he had previously done.

WATCH Tony Blair at Sharon's memorial service: "The idea that he changed from the man of war to the man of peace misses that which defined him." (BBC)

The evidence to support the notion that he had suddenly become a peacenik was superficially compelling. If there has been one theme to Sharon’s life, it was relentless, aggressive expansion: forward, always forward. I spent enough time with him to know that the manner in which he ate -- he could vacuum up vast quantities of food -- corresponded to the way he conquered territory.

In 1967, as a daring tank commander, he helped secure the Sinai Peninsula for Israel. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he led a tank force across the Suez Canal to within striking distance of Cairo. As Israel’s agriculture minister, and later its defense minister, Sharon oversaw the planting of Israeli settlements not only in Gaza, but also in the far-flung reaches of the West Bank. In 1982, as Menachem Begin’s defense minister, Sharon focused his attention north, on Lebanon, which had become a base for PLO attacks against Israel. Not content merely to kill terrorists in Lebanon’s south and go home, Sharon decided he would deal the PLO a fatal blow -- and remake Lebanese politics in the process, by installing a friendly Christian government in Beirut. Israel’s invasion ended, instead, with the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Christian militiamen, under the noses of the Israeli army.

So what changed? What caused a man who moved so relentlessly forward to suddenly reverse course? His view of the Palestinians, and their desires, had not changed at all. In 2000, he told me that, “The Arabs don’t want the Jews to be here. That is the secret of this whole story. This land we are on is considered by the Muslims to be holy land. They will never let anyone possess it. You should read the Koran. You’ll see what they think about the Jews. They want to take this land by violence.”

Four years later, he told me more or less the same thing, though in language softened somewhat by knowledge that he was speaking as prime minister, not as the leader of the right-wing opposition. “We have a problem with our partner. It is not realistic to think that the Palestinians would agree to stop their war on us if they receive some pieces of territory.”

Nevertheless, Sharon by 2005 reached the conclusion that a piece of territory is what the Palestinians would get, without even the hassle of negotiation. “I’ve decided that it is impossible to keep holding three and half million Palestinians in a situation of occupation,” he told me. His use of the word “occupation” in and of itself was revolutionary -- in the 1990s, he would describe the West Bank and Gaza as liberated territory, not occupied.

What changed was not his heart, not his life’s aim, but his understanding of reality. In his heart, he understood Israel’s enemies to be implacable. His objective was unaltered: to defend the existence of the Jewish state by any means necessary. For many years, he believed that the existence of the Jewish state was dependent on the occupation of Gaza. But he then came to realize that the “occupation” of Gaza was undermining Israel’s democracy, international standing and security. And so he left. He left Gaza for the same reason he invaded Lebanon: He thought it would make Israel safer.

Sharon made one terrible mistake in Gaza. His mistake was not leaving: He grasped, correctly, that over time staying would have been fatal for Israel. His mistake was leaving unilaterally. A negotiated withdrawal -- and there were Palestinians with whom he could have negotiated such a withdrawal -- could have extracted important concessions from Palestinians. Instead, radicals in Gaza were empowered by Sharon’s unilateralism. They believed, not entirely incorrectly, that their terrorism had paid off, forcing even a legendary warrior like Ariel Sharon to turn tail. The fallout from the withdrawal is well known: Hamas soon came to power and turned Gaza into a launching pad for missile attacks against the towns Sharon long before predicted would be attacked.

And yet, Sharon, through the same force of will that propelled him heroically across the Suez Canal, and sent him deeply and disastrously into Lebanon, did something hugely important for his country: He began to disentangle Israel from the lives of the Palestinians. Settlers will never return to Gaza. That is an achievement.

And it is a lesson for Benjamin Netanyahu, who will shortly surpass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Netanyahu lacks some of Sharon’s defects, but he also lacks some of Sharon’s most important positive qualities. He is not a man of action, and this has kept him from launching unnecessary wars. But it has also kept him from acting on what he knows. Netanyahu grasps the same reality Sharon grasped 10 years ago. Continued settlement of the West Bank, and continued entanglement of Israel in the lives of millions of Palestinians, will eventually be his country’s undoing. A way out must be found. It is a good thing that Netanyahu isn’t a bulldozer; he would never execute a withdrawal from the West Bank in the sort of precipitous, blundering Sharon-like way that would increase the danger for Israel. But he might never do it at all. If Sharon had not been stricken eight years ago, Israel might today already be out of the West Bank. It is up to Netanyahu now to save the Jewish state.