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President Ronald Reagan, in his memoirs, was to recall the Israeli defense minister at the time as “a bellicose man who seems to be chomping at the bit to start a war.”

But it was the massacre in the refugee camps that was to haunt Mr. Sharon for the rest of his life. A commission headed by Israel’s top jurist concluded in 1983 that “the defense minister made a grave mistake when he ignored the danger of acts of revenge by the [Christian militiamen] against the population in the refugee camps” and called for his dismissal.

Mr. Sharon resigned soon afterwards, but maintained that Israel “bears no responsibility, either direct or indirect, for what happened there.”

“He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map,” said Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Mr. Sharon was prime minister a decade ago. “He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive.”

Mr. Sharon’s right-wing base made him useful to a string of subsequent governments, but he was repeatedly frustrated in attempts to take control of the Likud Party. Many in Israel wrote him off politically.

But he used his post as housing minister and then national infrastructure minister to boost settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza, and built up such a following that Mr. Netanyahu made him foreign minister in 1998. Mr. Sharon finally took over Likud when Mr. Netanyahu lost to Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak in the 1999 general election.

As opposition leader, Mr. Sharon loudly protested Mr. Barak’s feelers to the Palestinians, playing on growing Israeli skepticism of the peace process following the collapse of President Clinton’s Camp David summit in the summer of 2000.

Reversals of policy, fortune

Detractors say Mr. Sharon helped ensure the failure of any peace accord and the fall of the Barak government with a provocative visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in September 2000, a site also sacred to Muslims as the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque. New violence between the Palestinians and Israelis flared up in the wake of the visit.

With the Israeli peace camp discredited, the 72-year-old Mr. Sharon finally reached the pinnacle of power with Likud’s landslide win in February 2001. But in the final act of a remarkable career, Mr. Sharon proved once again capable of confounding critics and supporters alike.

He adopted a policy of tough retaliation against terrorist strikes and aligned closely with the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But Mr. Sharon also endorsed a U.S.-backed “road map” for peace with the Palestinians, extended a security barrier designed to cut terrorist threats, and used the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to try to change the dynamic of the peace process.

In his most startling reversal, the longtime champion of Jewish settlers announced a unilateral disengagement plan that called for the abandoning of 25 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an end to what he called Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian lands.

Mr. Sharon carried through with the withdrawal despite bitter protests from Likud’s hard-line factions. Faced with a rebellion in his longtime political base, Mr. Sharon in November 2005 quit the Likud Party to form the new centrist Kadima (“Forward”) Party.

Kadima and Mr Sharon enjoyed a strong lead in the polls when Mr. Sharon suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke Jan. 4, 2006. His ally, Ehud Olmert, led Kadima to victory in the March general election but has struggled since then to claim the mantle of his far more storied predecessor.

Widely reviled in the Arab world for much of his professional career, Mr. Sharon seemed to win a grudging respect from many old adversaries in his final years. To the end, no one ever doubted he would do whatever he thought necessary to ensure the survival of the country he helped found and preserve.

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