Ariel Sharon, a pivotal figure in Israel's history from his days as a foot soldier in the country's 1948 war for independence to his final years as a prime minister seeking a permanent peace in one of the world's toughest neighborhoods, has died after a lengthy illness. He was 85.
His son Gilad confirmed Mr. Sharon's death to Israeli media Saturday morning.
"He has gone. He went when he decided to go," Gilad Sharon said.
Mr. Sharon died with his family at his bedside at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, Israel, where he had been comatose since suffering a massive stroke eight years ago. His condition had deteriorated rapidly since the start of the year.
"Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him," Israeli President Shimon Peres said, using Mr. Sharon's nickname and calling him "one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision."
"He knew how to take difficult decisions and implement them. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed," Mr. Peres said.
In a statement from the White House, President Obama said that he and the first lady "send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel.
"We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel's security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples. We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security," the president said.
A war hero-turned-politician, Mr. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in 2006 on the eve of what shaped up as his last great campaign — re-drawing Israel's political map as the unlikely head of a centrist party determined to strike a final security settlement with the Palestinians and with the country's hostile Arab neighbors.
A blunt, bearish man with a penchant for defying superiors and enraging enemies in pursuit of his goals, Mr. Sharon proved a polarizing figure both in Israel and on the world stage in his quest for total security for the embattled Jewish state.
For critics, his battlefield heroics — in the 1956 Suez Crisis, in the 1967 Six-Day War, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and his lengthy political resume were overshadowed by a string of controversial and often bloody decisions. His failure as defense minister to restrain enraged Lebanese Christian militia forces in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps led many to brand him a "war criminal."
But in a military and political career that spanned nearly six decades, Mr. Sharon never apologized for his unswerving defense of Israel's security, arguing that only force and power could guarantee his country's survival and bring peace to the region.
"I believe I can make peace because I saw all the horrors of war," he said in a November 2001 Newsweek interview, just months after winning election as prime minister. "I participated in all the wars and lost my best friends in battles. I was seriously injured twice. Therefore, I understand the importance of peace better than the politicians who speak about peace but who never experienced war."
A military leader
He was a son of his homeland even before Israel came into existence, born Feb. 27, 1928, in the rural settlement of Kfar Malal, 15 miles north of modern-day Tel Aviv, in what was then the British-run mandate of Palestine. His parents, Shmuel and Dvora Scheinerman, were Russian immigrants active in the Zionist movement to establish a state for the world's Jews in their ancient Middle East homeland.
In the difficult early years, as Jewish settlers tried to scratch out a living in the face of violent tensions with the Arabs living there, Mr. Sharon recalled that his parents were not given to emotional outbursts, but were quietly determined to see the improbably Zionist project succeed.
"What my parents did exude was strength, determination and stubbornness," he recalled in his 1989 autobiography "Warrior," traits both supporters and adversaries to attributed in later years to their son.
He joined the informal Jewish defense organization as a teen-ager, and got his first taste of war in the Arab-Israeli clashes of 1948-49. A 20-year-old platoon leader, Mr. Sharon in April 1948 was wounded in a failed attempt to end a blockade by Jordanian troops of a key supply line
Israel achieved its independence in the war, but Mr. Sharon would never forget the poor planning, intelligence and training of the Israeli forces in that early skirmish, making it a lifelong crusade to fashion Israel's military into a world-class fighting force. He tried to return to his studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, but was called back into service in the new Israeli Defense Forces in 1953 to deal with continued Arab cross-border raids.
Israeli army chief Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion personally endorsed the selection of the bold young soldier to head a new commando unit to counter the raids. Mr. Sharon later recalled that it was here he first conceived of the necessity of maximum retaliation in the face of threats to national security.
"I came to believe that whenever we were forced to strike, we should so with the aim of inflicting heavy losses on enemy troops, ... to convince the Arabs that war was futile, that aggression would bring nothing but humiliation and destruction," he wrote.
It was in 1953 that a Sharon-led military strike first led to international controversy.
Responding to an attack inside Israel, Mr. Sharon's commandos entered the Jordanian village of Qibya, ordered residents to leave and dynamited dozens of homes. The attack sparked international condemnation when it was later learned that 50 villagers who had not evacuated were killed in the blasts.
Popular with his troops but often frustrated by his superiors, Mr. Sharon repeatedly in his military career would exceed or even disobey orders in the heat of battle, almost always preferring the most aggressive tactical approach. His willingness to flout orders and defy his superiors slowed his advance through the ranks, but Israeli commanders repeatedly turned to Mr. Sharon in times of military crisis.
Typical of his operating style was Mr. Sharon's decision as a brigade commander in the 1956 Suez War against Egyptian forces occupying a key pass on the Sinai peninsula. Ordered only to reconnoiter the pass, Mr. Sharon was later accused of provoking a major battle in which his forces seized control of the pass but suffered heavy casualties.
Still, while obtaining a law degree from Tel Aviv University, Mr. Sharon was named chief of staff of Israel's Northern Command in 1964 and put in charge of training for the Israeli army two years later.
But Mr. Sharon's reputation as a military tactician of genius was sealed by his performance in Israel's victories in the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Triumphs and tragedies
In the first conflict, Maj. Gen. Sharon commanded an armored unit that overwhelmed Egyptian forces on the Sinai in a lightning strike, key to an overwhelming victory that put the Sinai, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Syria's Golan Heights under Israeli control. Mr. Sharon's maneuvers that fateful week are still studied in military colleges around the world.
Under pressure from senior Israeli commanders still unhappy with his free-lancing ways, Mr. Sharon resigned from the service in 1972, purchasing a modest ranch in the northern Negev Desert that was to become his personal retreat.
But he was abruptly called back into October 1973 following a surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Again exceeding his orders, Mr. Sharon advanced deep behind Egyptian lines, helping cut off an entire Egyptian army. He vehemently criticized his political superiors for accepting a U.S.-Soviet cease-fire before his troops could consolidate their gains.
Again, his aggressiveness caused Mr. Sharon problems with his superiors, but a famous battlefield photo of Mr. Sharon, his head swathed in a bandage as he consulted a map at the Suez Canal, came to symbolize Israel's victory over what seemed overwhelming odds.
Mr. Sharon's public triumphs were tempered by personal tragedies. His first wife, Margalit, a Holocaust refugee from Romania whom he married in 1953, was killed in a car crash in May 1962. Just months after Mr. Sharon's heroism in the Six-Day War, his 12-year-old son Gur was shot to death by a playmate when the two were handling one of the general's antique guns.
Mr. Sharon married his first wife's sister, Lily, who came to help the family after Margalit's death. She died of lung cancer in 2000.
In addition to personal tragedy, Mr. Sharon was dogged throughout his career by charges of shady financial dealings. Nothing was ever proved in court against him, but his son Omri was fined and sentenced to nine months in jail earlier this year for fund-raising violations in his father's campaign for Likud Party chairman in 1999. The younger Mr. Sharon resigned his Knesset seat but his jail term was delayed because of his father's illness.
Just as his military career was coming to an end, Mr. Sharon embarked on a long, tortuous political career, one that would take him from the fringes of the Israeli political to the center of power and a transforming role in the Middle East and beyond.
And as in his military career, Mr. Sharon moved steadily up the political ladder despite never being fully trusted or supported by the prime ministers in whose governments he served. His first political base was the Jewish settlers who moved onto land captured in the Six-Day War, and he consistently supported their right to maintain and expand their homesteads as a way to ensure Israel's security.
His aggressiveness in promoting the settlers' earned him his most enduring nickname, "Bulldozer."
First elected to the Knesset in 1973, he resigned to serve as a special security adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin two years later. But he returned to the Israeli legislature in 1977 and allied with the new right-wing government of Likud Party Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He would hold Cabinet posts under a series of Israeli governments for much of the next two decades
His most significant portfolios were as defense minister under Mr. Begin from 1981 to 1983, and his appointment as minister of national infrastructure under Likud Prime Minister (and rival) Benjamin Netanyahu in the late 1990s.
His tenure are defense minister nearly ended his career in disgrace, climaxing in the Sabra and Shatila massacre that led his enemies to dub him the "butcher of Beirut."
The international group Human Rights Watch on Saturday expressed regret that Mr. Sharon never faced war crimes charges for the massacre.
"It's a shame that Sharon has gone to his grave without facing justice for his role in Sabra and Shatilla and other abuses," Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of the group, said in a statement. "His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer."
Mr. Sharon's strong championing of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 — intended to flush out Palestinian militants staging attacks on Israel — resulted in a grinding occupation that ended with Israel's withdrawal 18 years later. Mr. Sharon once again came under criticism for pressing the Israeli incursion far beyond the limited range by the Begin government.
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.
"Jews have this one, tiny country," he said once in a speech to American Jewish leaders.
"It is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and privilege to defend themselves. Israel will not be able to make any compromises when it comes to our security."
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