Sharon’s secret was war record, tough reputation

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JERUSALEM (AP) - Many had written off Ariel Sharon after his ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon and a government commission’s finding that he was indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps outside Beirut.

They just didn’t get it.

A few days after the blue-ribbon Kahan Commission presented its findings in 1983, Sharon went to the desert town of Kiryat Malachi for a meeting of the Likud Party, which he had helped found a decade earlier.

It was a hot evening in the dusty development town, where most of the residents were working-class Jewish immigrants from North Africa and their children - Sharon’s constituency.

The local Likud boss welcomed Sharon as Israel’s greatest hero, and cheers rattled the windows as the “disgraced” ex-defense minister made his entrance. “Arik, king of Israel,” they chanted, calling him by his nickname. One after another, speakers praised Sharon and defended his actions. People pressed forward to shake his hand.

The peak moment came when a young man in a simple work shirt bound onto the stage carrying his tiny baby son. To the cheers of the crowd, he said that he had just named his son “Sharon.”

These were Sharon’s people - less-educated, simple, straightforward and hardworking, who shared his views of Arabs as untrustworthy types who understood only the use of force.

That was Sharon’s defining characteristic in those distant days. As an army commander in the 1950s, he answered Palestinian bloodshed with bigger bloodshed. In 1973, with the Yom Kippur War going against Israel, he thumbed his nose at superiors who tried to keep him in check and led an Israeli force across the Suez Canal, trapping part of Egypt’s army and turning the war in Israel’s favor.

A stocky figure with an unruly mop of white hair and a high-pitched voice that was a gift to mimics, he did not come by his charisma with chiseled looks, modulated voices and carefully crafted statements.

Sharon earned his with action on the battlefield, and a personal charm that often got lost in his tough public persona.

At 260 pounds, the rotund Sharon was a hard man to miss, and he wasn’t about joking about it.

Shortly before he was incapacitated by a stroke in early 2006, Sharon was asked whether a new political alliance might drag the famously right-wing ex-general to the left. He patted his barrel of a paunch and replied: “Look at me. Do you really think anybody could drag me anywhere?”

His love of dining took its toll. Driven to a June 2002 visit to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street he had to be pushed and pulled until he popped free from the back seat of the government Jaguar.

He was reputed to have a fierce temper, but although he would rebuke journalists he believed had been sloppy or unfair, he did so without raising his voice - at least in public.

Sharon was a courtly man. When women entered a room he stood up until they were seated. And when an Israeli journalist covering his visit to Auschwitz was overcome with tears, he ushered her into his armored limousine so that she could compose herself in private.

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