Obituary: Ariel Sharon / Israeli warrior, premier Israeli warrior, premier

Feb. 27, 1928 - Jan. 11, 2014


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Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state after a massive stroke, was a monumental figure in Israel's modern history who epitomized the country's warrior past even as he sought to become the architect of a peaceful future.

His death, at 85, was confirmed by a senior official in the Israeli prime minister's office and Shlomo Noy of the Shedba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv, where Mr. Sharon had spent his last years.

As a soldier, defense minister and prime minister, Mr. Sharon fought or commanded forces in every one of Israel's military conflicts for more than half a century, beginning with its 1948 independence war, and was author of the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a politician, he built the infrastructure of the country's controversial settlement campaign in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, then stunned friend and foe alike by dismantling part of the project he had long championed.

Through it all, Mr. Sharon commanded center stage, insisting at times that he alone knew what was best for the state of Israel and persevering over six decades to finally emerge as prime minister in 2001, after countless humiliations that would have long killed off the careers of less determined men. At the time of his stroke in January 2006, he was in the process of seeking to extend his time in office by forging a new centrist political movement based upon his personal popularity.

The man who chose the title "Warrior" for his autobiography was for much of his career the darling of the Israeli right, which chanted "Arik, King of Israel!" invoking his nickname and comparing him to the legendary biblical King David.

For decades, he used that support to undermine governments of both the rival Labor and his own Likud parties and advance his personal political agenda. But in later years, as he first organized Israel's withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and made plans for pullbacks from parts of the West Bank, the right denounced him as a traitor.

The more dovish left, which had long feared and despised him, had begun to re-evaluate his motives and policies and accord him a grudging respect. Meanwhile, for moderates on both sides of Israel's bitter political divide, wary and exhausted after years of conflict and false dawns, Mr. Sharon came to embody the country's eternal quest for security. While he did not always share their hopes, he understood and spoke to their fears.

Critics said Mr. Sharon suffered from a Napoleon complex and consciously encouraged a cult of personality that posed a threat to democracy. He insisted that he had never wavered from his primary principle of unswerving devotion to the state and to the Jewish people. But he said he had come to recognize that the view from the prime minister's office was like the verse of a popular Israeli song: There are "some things you can see from here [that] you can't see from there."

His body was to lie in state at the parliament today before he is buried Monday at his ranch in southern Israel, Israeli media reported. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation.

Ariel Scheinermann was born Feb. 27, 1928, in Palestine, then under British mandatory rule, in a cooperative farming village.

He took the Hebrew name for "plain" (as in the Israeli coastal plain of Sharon) and as a teenager joined the Haganah, the main Jewish underground movement opposed to British rule. During Israel's war of independence, he commanded an infantry unit and was wounded during the battle to secure the road to besieged Jerusalem.

After spending time as a reservist, Mr. Sharon was recalled to create and command Unit 101, which was tasked with conducting commando operations against Palestinian guerrillas. It was there that he first won recognition for his brutally effective tactics and retaliatory raids.

Mr. Sharon fought with distinction during the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.

He led the daring but bloody attack across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that rolled back Egyptian forces.

His exploits made him a popular swashbuckling figure with many Israelis. At the same time, he gained notoriety among his superiors as a relentless maverick and self-promoter.

After his reputation prevented him from gaining a foothold in the ruling Labor Party, he helped found the opposition Likud coalition that eventually took power under Menachem Begin in 1977. Begin named Mr. Sharon as agriculture minister, a post he used to launch the massive construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. When Begin was re-elected in 1981, Mr. Sharon gained the post he had long coveted: defense minister.

Mr. Sharon, who saw himself as a master strategist, argued that possession of the West Bank was crucial to Israel's security and that the nearly 1 million Palestinians who lived there should look to neighboring Jordan as their future state.

He saw Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, then based in Beirut and southern Lebanon, as the supreme obstacle to his geopolitical vision. Using PLO raids on Israel as his justification, he set out to break the movement's power with an ambitious invasion that took the Israeli army to the gates of Beirut.

Mr. Sharon took personal command of the operation, at times overruling his own generals and ignoring objections from field commanders who argued he was risking too many soldiers' lives and inflicting needless damage on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.

The operation eventually succeeded in expelling Arafat and his fighters to Tunis.

The Lebanon campaign eventually alienated the Reagan administration in the United States and a large swath of the Israeli public, and helped give birth to a new peace movement inside the country.

Mr. Sharon was forced to resign after an independent Israeli judicial commission ruled that he bore indirect responsibility for failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps south of Beirut by Israel's Lebanese Christian militia allies. He later sued for libel and won a retraction and settlement from Time magazine for an article that claimed he had sanctioned the massacre in advance.

His political career might have ended then, but Mr. Sharon clawed his way back into the Cabinet in the politically fractious "national unity governments" that ruled between 1984 and 1990, and later resumed his settlement-building program for the West Bank and Gaza as housing minister under Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Mr. Sharon was widely seen in those days as the self-anointed champion of the hard right who had opposed both the historic Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993.

He rejected the concept that Israel could gain peace by returning conquered Arab territory -- the basic formula behind those agreements -- remaining convinced that most Arabs would never accept the existence of a Jewish state in their midst, that the conflict would continue indefinitely and that Israel's only hope was to remain stronger, smarter and more relentless than its enemies.

He again seemed destined for the political scrap heap in 1996 after his younger Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, was elected prime minister. But Mr. Netanyahu was eventually compelled to appoint Mr. Sharon as foreign minister. And after Mr. Netanyahu was defeated by Labor's Ehud Barak in 1999, Mr. Sharon became Likud chairman.

Mr. Sharon's controversial visit in September, 2000 to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, or Noble Sanctuary, a site considered holy to both Muslims and Jews, helped trigger a second Palestinian uprising that smothered hopes for a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

After a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings of civilian targets and Israeli military reprisals, voters turned to Mr. Sharon, overwhelmingly electing him prime minister in 2001.

The new prime minister waged a multipronged campaign of aerial bombings, ground attacks, targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders, temporary reoccupation of major West Bank cities and, ultimately, the construction of a barrier around and through the West Bank to cut off large portions of Palestinian territory from Israeli population centers.

The campaign wreaked enormous physical damage on the West Bank and Gaza and deepened the area's poverty and despair, but succeeded in suffocating the uprising.

The gradual collapse of that uprising, followed by Arafat's death in November 2004, led Mr. Sharon to see new opportunities. He opened talks with Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, while at the same time launching a unilateral initiative to withdraw from Gaza and four isolated West Bank settlements.

His motives were pragmatic: He said he had reluctantly concluded that the handful of small Jewish settlements in Gaza were a detriment to Israeli security.

The Gaza disengagement infuriated his former allies.When Mr. Sharon had difficulty enforcing unity within his ruling Likud party -- and faced the prospect of a newly resurgent Mr. Netanyahu evicting him from power -- he and his advisers opted to form a new political movement called Kadima, which means "Forward" in Hebrew.

After Mr. Sharon's massive stroke, the party won a slim victory in March 2006 elections and Mr. Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. But Mr. Olmert was driven from office in 2009 because of corruption charges (he was acquitted in 2012 of two of the three main counts), and without Mr. Sharon at the helm, Kadima's popularity gradually faded.

Mr. Sharon was first hospitalized on Dec. 18, 2005, reportedly after a mild stroke. But 17 days later he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma from which he never emerged. In the ensuing years, his condition was shrouded in secrecy.


Associated Press contributed.

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