In death as in life, Ariel Sharon remains one of Israel’s most polarizing figures. He was widely admired as a war hero known as “Bulldozer.” He also was credibly accused of negligence leading to a large-scale atrocity — and for much of his public career doggedly resisted overtures for Mideast peace.
Yet in his last acts as a public servant, he embraced the pursuit of peace, setting a worthy example for Israelis — and their enemies — to follow.
Mr. Sharon led 1950s raids that drove Palestinians beyond Israel’s borders. He later won the strong support of the settler movement by providing funds to seize and settle Arab lands conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. His reputation for forceful —even excessive — military action persisted throughout the rest of the 20th century.
In 1983, an Israeli investigative commission concluded that then-Defense Minister Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for the massacre of at least 700 Palestinian civilians by Lebanese militia during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Many Israelis also held Mr. Sharon, who by then was prime minister, responsible for needlessly provoking the dangerous Palestinian uprising in 2000, known as the Second Intifada, with his bellicose rhetoric and policies.
However, many right-wing Israelis who had long admired Mr. Sharon accused him of betraying them in 2005 when, as prime minister, he ordered the forceful evacuation of the settlements in Gaza. He also warned at the time that many other settlements in the West Bank would be shut down.
And despite his hard-line history, in February 2005 Prime Minister Sharon reached a preliminary accord with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to initiate talks on an independent Palestinian state.
At that transforming point, Mr. Sharon broke with his right-wing party Likud and founded a centrist party, Kadima, to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
Then a January 2006 stroke left him paralyzed. He had been in a coma for eight years before his death Friday.
The Israeli public initially appeared to back Prime Minister Sharon’s 21st century peace objectives. His Kadima party retained control of the government after his stroke, and his successor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, came tantalizingly close to an agreement with Palestinian President Abbas.
Unfortunately, though, a rival Palestinian bloc, Hamas, triggered a short war between Israel and Gaza at the end of 2008. And since 2009, Israel has been led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not appeared to be in any hurry for fruitful negotiations with Mr. Abbas.
Yes, Israel’s continuing wariness about Palestinian intentions is justified.
But even a hard-line hawk like Ariel Sharon learned to seek peace through reconciliation with the Palestinians.
And if the current round of negotiations being brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with an April deadline reaches a final agreement, it will be in part a fitting tribute to Mr. Sharon.