Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Picture: REUTERS
Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Picture: REUTERS

HAD Ariel Sharon died in 2006, when he suffered the stroke that left him comatose and ended his term as Israel’s prime minister, there would have been an outpouring of tributes from across the world.

But eight years have passed, and much of what Sharon, who died on Saturday at 85, accomplished has receded from general memory. The tributes will sound, but it’s unlikely that Sharon will receive his full due, except in the pages of history.

People who once vilified him as a warmonger and jeered at "the Butcher of Beirut" came to praise his achievements. Once Israel’s most polarising political figure, he improbably achieved a broad national consensus of support for his policies.

Not that Sharon had gone soft, as his detractors on the right sneered. But he was first and foremost a pragmatist whose priority was ensuring Israel’s long-term security and viability. Whether as a general or a politician, Sharon always favoured bold and often risky moves that sometimes went wrong.

Indeed, the war in Lebanon, which he led, is still emotionally debated after three decades. More often than not, though, he proved his critics wrong.

As prime minister — an office almost no one ever thought he could achieve — he refused to beg the Palestinians to negotiate, because he was convinced they weren’t interested in making peace. But if they refused, he warned, Israel would unilaterally declare its own boundaries — on terms far less generous than the Palestinians could ever hope to achieve in negotiations.

Sharon’s death removes from the scene one of the last of Israel’s founding generation. From beginning to end, he was a courageous and formidable presence, a strong leader whose effect will be felt for a long time to come. RIP.

New York City, January 13