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Ariel Sharon, Israel's controversial, iron-willed former leader, dies

Ariel Sharon, the daring Israeli general who as a field commander and prime minister became one of the most influential and controversial leaders in the Middle East, died Saturday. He was 85.

Sharon, who had been incapacitated since suffering a severe stroke in 2006, was moved in 2010 to his ranch in the Negev desert at the request of his family. In September he underwent abdominal surgery, but his condition worsened this month as his organs deteriorated. Sharon's death at a hospital near Tel Aviv was announced by his son Gilad.

"That's it. He's gone. He went when he decided to go," his son said.

After a long military and political career that firmly anchored him on the political right, Mr. Sharon in his last years came to embody Israel's political center. Stout, jowly, usually dressed in the informal style that is the Israeli norm, he was nicknamed the "bulldozer" for relentlessly pursing his goals, and he was newly dedicated to separating Israel from the Palestinians. That would have allowed for creation of a Palestinian state, even if Mr. Sharon intended to have the dominant voice in deciding its borders.

"[Sharon] was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him," Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement. "He was 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."

Few if any Israelis since David Ben-Gurion, the country's first prime minister, could claim to have left a greater imprint on the country than Mr. Sharon. As a sometimes-reckless but much-decorated military leader, he played important roles in every major military conflict in the country's history, from Israel's War of Independence in 1948 to his crossing of the Suez Canal to help end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to Israel's ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

During a 31-year political career that involved steep ascents and significant defeats, Mr. Sharon served in a variety of Cabinet posts, dedicating many of his efforts to aggressively building Jewish settlements, sometimes illegally, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Yet his most significant action as prime minister was his decision in 2005 to reverse course by evicting all Jewish settlers from Gaza, withdrawing all Israeli troops from there, and dismantling several remote settlements in the West Bank, thereby turning many of his most loyal right-wing supporters against him.

Mr. Sharon's journey from the political far right to the center — from open hostility to the idea of Palestinian statehood to cautious acceptance — was completed in November 2005, when he broke away from the Likud, the party he helped create more than 30 years ago.

Frustrated by the Likud's rebellion against his decision to withdraw from Gaza, Mr. Sharon set off a on a new course, forming a centrist party, Kadima, that with Mr. Sharon as its leader emerged as Israel's largest political party in national elections the following March 28.

For many Israelis, Mr. Sharon's new party represented an opportunity, if not for a final peace settlement, then at least for the chance to create a separate Palestinian state and perhaps assure stability and security after five years of intense violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Much of the attraction of his new party was Mr. Sharon himself. Despite the allegations of corruption that swirled around him and his sons, his bullheadedness on the battlefield and combative personality, he never lost the power to persuade Israelis that he was the one figure who could guide them through turbulent times.

"We are talking about someone who on the one hand was very charismatic, skillful and able, and on the other hand was very controversial and a person who took risks, some of which caused disasters," said Abraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"The very famous quality of Sharon is that he is a person who pushes his ideas and plans all the way — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst."

Elected prime minister in a landslide victory in 2001, Mr. Sharon had promised to rescue the country from seemingly endless suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militants. He launched Operation Defensive Shield, taking the war against militants to the West Bank and Gaza but at the cost of all but destroying the Palestinian Authority, the government that provided thousands of Palestinians with jobs and basic services. He isolated Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his longtime nemesis, in the Palestinians' ruined headquarters until weeks before Mr. Arafat's death in November 2004.

For much of the Arab world, Mr. Sharon was a feared and hated enemy. He was for them "the butcher," not forgiven his role in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut by Lebanese Christian militia in 1982 during the Lebanon war. But Israel's withdrawal from Gaza led some Arabs to reconsider him.

Ariel "Arik" Sharon was born Feb. 27, 1928, the son of Samuil and Vera Sharon, who had immigrated to Palestine from Russia after World War I. He spent his childhood on an agricultural cooperative, or moshav, in Kfar Malal, a village north of Tel Aviv. His father had difficult relations with the other farmers in the community — difficulties apparently born of his stubbornness — and the son suffered from the family's isolation.

At age 14, in 1942, Mr. Sharon joined the Haganah, the Jewish military underground that would later battle the armies of the British Mandate, which governed Palestine, and then Arab fighters. In 1948, the Haganah became the cornerstone of the newborn Israeli army, and Mr. Sharon fought in the country's war of independence. He was seriously wounded during a battle at the key crossroads of Latrun, which controlled the main road to Jerusalem. At war's end, he was appointed head of an army brigade.

After briefly attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he was asked in 1953 to return to active duty to create an elite unit designed to counter Arab attacks. He became instrumental in formulating Israel's policy of large-scale retaliation, irrespective of borders.

It was carried out later that year during a raid on the village of Kibbiya, near Jerusalem, where Mr. Sharon's Unit 101 avenged the killing of a Jewish mother and her two children. During the midnight operation, Mr. Sharon's troops used explosives to demolish most of the village's stone homes, killing 69 people, half of them women and children.

Mr. Sharon considered the operation a success because Israel had demonstrated its resolve and ability to extend its reach beyond Israel's borders. The government considered it a fiasco because world opinion condemned the retribution as far out of proportion to the original violence.

In his official biography, posted on the prime minister's Web site, Mr. Sharon portrayed his several military units in the 1950s as carrying "most of the burden of the retaliation acts" against Arab guerrillas and Arab states, and shaping the army's fighting standards. But he was also earning a reputation for recklessness and going beyond the orders of superiors.

During the Sinai War in 1956, after he and his troops parachuted behind enemy lines, Mr. Sharon's troops were surrounded by three Egyptian divisions. Instead of retreating as ordered, he fought, winning the battle but at the cost of one-fourth of his men.

By the Six Day War, in 1967, Mr. Sharon had reached the rank of major general and commanded an armored division that reached the banks of the Suez Canal. Israel captured the Sinai, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the lands that helped define much of his later career.

But just as Mr. Sharon had achieved the success he so desired, his personal life turned dark. Shortly before the Jewish New Year in 1967, his 11-year-old son Gur was killed while playing with one of Mr. Sharon's antique shotguns.

Five years before, his first wife, Gali, was killed in a car crash on the road to Jerusalem. Mr. Sharon remarried and had two sons with his second wife, Lily, who died in 2000.

In 1971, he focused his attention on the growing influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the territories occupied by Israel. His troops and tanks forcibly cleared large parts of the Gaza Strip, adding to Mr. Sharon's reputation as a force that could not be easily deterred.

His greatest victory as a soldier came in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Mr. Sharon's armored division made a daring crossing of the Suez Canal to take Egyptian forces from behind, securing Israel's victory in a war whose outcome had for a time seemed uncertain. Ignoring orders, Mr. Sharon then attacked the supply lines of the Egyptian troops, advancing to within 60 miles of Cairo.

Mr. Sharon emerged from the war a national hero. "Sharon, King of Israel," became a common refrain among his troops. He quickly turned his popularity into political gain, winning a seat in parliament in 1974. He soon resigned to retain his position as a commander in the reserves, but went back into government in 1975 to serve as a security adviser to Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 1977, Mr. Sharon joined the Cabinet of the first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin.

Mr. Sharon used his seemingly lowly position as minister of agriculture to begin promoting Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. According to his official biography, over the next seven years he established 230 outposts, ranging in size from small military camps to communities of hundreds and eventually thousands of residents.

He became minister of defense in 1981, and one of his first jobs was to evacuate the Sinai settlement of Yamit when the area was returned to Egypt. Asked by an interviewer at the time how he would manage to evacuate the settlers, most of whom were refusing to go, Mr. Sharon responded: "We'll tell them Sharon is coming."

A fast rise in Israel's political life seemed assured. But in 1982, he led the country into an unpopular war in Lebanon in an effort to humiliate Mr. Arafat and destroy the PLO. On disputed pretexts, Mr. Sharon sent troops north to Beirut, creating unprecedented levels of dissension within the army and Israeli society. Even his superior, Prime Minister Begin, sometimes seemed taken by surprise by his defense minister's actions.

Mr. Arafat and the PLO fled Lebanon, but as part of a violent settling of accounts, Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while the camps were under Israeli control. In 1983, an Israeli commission investigating the atrocities found Mr. Sharon indirectly responsible, forcing him to step down. Israel's military occupation of southern Lebanon also helped radicalize Lebanon's Shiites, permanently altering the political balance.

To his critics, the Lebanon war was a disaster that fractured Israeli society. They believed the problems had roots in Mr. Sharon's record as an uncompromising, often-brilliant soldier undermined by his self-righteousness and disdain for authority.

"His immense energy, his indefatigability and his stubborn zeal in seeking high office were always offset by his parallel drive towards destruction, even self-destruction," wrote Uzi Benziman, author of Sharon: An Israeli Caesar.

Embittered by the mounting criticism over his role in the Lebanon atrocities, Mr. Sharon struck back, filing a libel suit against Time magazine. The jury found defamation and falsehood in the reporting, but no malice. Mr. Sharon lost.

For almost any other politician, costly failures like those in Lebanon would have meant an unceremonious end to a career. But he bided his time, accepting various government posts from Likud prime ministers. Although not religious himself, Mr. Sharon threw his support behind the religious settlers. He believed that the settlements were important for security, and he aggressively developed Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza, telling settlers to "grab more hills, expand the territory," often without government permission.

During the 1990s, Mr. Sharon was viewed as an extremist, out of step with the renewed efforts to secure peace agreements with the Palestinians. At the Wye River peace talks in Maryland in 1998, he refused to shake Mr. Arafat's hand. During the Middle East talks mediated by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000, Mr. Sharon stirred opposition to Prime Minister Ehud Barak back home, warning that Mr. Barak was ready to hand over Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon's visit to the plaza in front of the Aqsa Mosque, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is blamed for helping to trigger the Palestinian uprising in 2000. But the violence pushed the Israeli electorate into his arms as it searched for a leader tough enough to fight back. In February 2001, he won a landslide victory over Mr. Barak to become prime minister.

Mr. Sharon held Mr. Arafat, as head of the Palestinian Authority, personally responsible for clashes that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians in Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals. He broke off all official contacts with Mr. Arafat in 2002 and moved the Israeli army back into Palestinian cities, effectively destroying the Palestinian Authority's ability to govern.

Those actions helped create a costly standoff: Mr. Sharon demanded that Mr. Arafat crack down on militant groups, while Mr. Arafat said he couldn't because of the army's presence and the destruction of Palestinian police stations and jails. Relations remained frozen until Mr. Arafat's death and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as his successor.

After Mr. Sharon won re-election in 2003, he courted controversy by beginning the construction of fences and walls to separate Palestinians in the West Bank from major Jewish settlements and from Israel proper. He surprised nearly everyone by unveiling a plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

To push his plan through, Mr. Sharon turned against his political party, the Likud, forcing him to form a coalition government with the Labor Party.

Mr. Sharon's friends said his change in policies was genuine and matched by a change in personality. With age came humility. Mr. Sharon, in his last years, was no longer as eager to prove to lesser minds that they were inferior. Even his critics said that he was warm and likable in person.

"I have repeatedly and openly said that I am willing to make painful compromises in order to put an end to this ongoing and malignant conflict between those who struggle over this land, and that I would do my utmost in order to bring peace," Mr. Sharon said in 2004 before crucial votes on the plan in Israel's parliament. "I have learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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