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So strong was the adoration for him that many of his hard-line followers followed him when he switched ideological sides at the end of his career.

After decades of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, urging settlers to grab as much land as they could and voting against peace deals, Sharon took the unprecedented step in 2005 of pulling out of all of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, destroying 25 settlements.

If a dovish Israeli government had tried that, there could have been blood in the streets, riots led by Sharon’s own backers and maybe Sharon himself. Suddenly, Sharon became a hero even to many who hated him just three years earlier.

The West embraced him. Israeli moderates turned to him for leadership. Arab leaders who had vilified and boycotted him called him the only hope for peace.

In Israel’s 57-year history, there has never been anyone like Ariel Sharon. Only a figure who evoked such visceral empathy, such emotional identification, could switch sides so blatantly and not only get away with it, but also bring most of his supporters across the divide with him.

It will be a long time, if ever, until another Israeli politician can attract that kind of loyalty.

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Mark Lavie has reported on Ariel Sharon’s military and political career for The Associated Press since 1972.