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Israel’s hard-charging Ariel Sharon dies at 85

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been in a coma since he suffered a massive stroke in January of 2006.

ASsociated Press/File 2005

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been in a coma since he suffered a massive stroke in January of 2006.

Ariel Sharon, one of the most influential figures in Israel’s history, a military commander and political leader who at the height of his power redrew the country’s electoral map only to suffer a severe stroke from which he never recovered, died Saturday in a hospital near Tel Aviv. He was 85.

Gilad Sharon, one of his two surviving sons, told reporters at the hospital where the former prime minister spent most of the last eight years that his father “went when he decided to go.”

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A cunning and unforgiving general who went on to hold nearly every top government post, including prime minister at the time he was struck ill — Sharon spent his final years in what doctors defined as a state of minimal consciousness in a sterile suite at the hospital, Sheba Medical Center. Visits were restricted for fear of infection.

Professor Shlomo Nov of the medical center said heart failure was “the direct cause of his death,” resulting from organ deterioration that had deepened over “a number of days.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the nation bowed its head to a man he described as “first and foremost a brave soldier and an outstanding military commander” who “had a central role in the battle for Israel’s security from the very beginning.”

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In many ways, Sharon’s story was that of his country. A champion of an iron-fisted, territory-expanding Zionism for most of his life, he stunned Israel and the world in 2005 with a Nixon-to-China reversal and withdrew all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. He then abandoned his Likud Party and formed a centrist movement called Kadima focused on further territorial withdrawal and a Palestinian state next door.

Sharon was incapacitated eight years ago, in January 2006, and in elections that followed, Kadima still won the most votes. His former deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. But the impact of Sharon’s political shift went beyond Kadima. The hawkish Likud Party, led by his rival Netanyahu, was returned to power in 2009, and Netanyahu, too, said then that he favored a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

An architect of Israeli settlements in the occupied lands, Sharon gained infamy for his harsh tactics against the Palestinians over whom Israel ruled. That reputation began to soften after his election as prime minister in 2001, when he first talked about the inevitability of Palestinian statehood.

Israeli settlers, who had seen him as their patron, considered him an enemy after he won re-election in 2003. In addition to withdrawing from Gaza and a small portion of the West Bank, he completed part of a 450-mile barrier along and through parts of the West Bank — a barrier he had originally opposed. It not only reduced infiltration by militants into Israel but also provided the outline of a border with a future Palestinian state, albeit one he envisioned as having limited sovereignty.

Before becoming ill, Sharon was said to have been planning further withdrawals of Jewish settlers and troops from Palestinian lands in hopes of fulfilling the central goal of his life: ensuring a viable and strong state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland.

But even if he had stayed healthy, his plans might have been interrupted by the rise of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, the 2006 conflict with the militant group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and increased concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Sharon viewed negotiating with Palestinian leaders as pointless; he felt they had neither the will nor the power to live up to their promises. By carrying out the withdrawal unilaterally and building the barrier to include large Israeli settlement blocks, Sharon said he believed that he was ensuring a Jewish state with defensible borders. Critics argued that by redeploying without handing responsibility to the Palestinian Authority, he had increased the power of Hamas.

Sharon’s final years in power contained surprises beyond the settlement reversal. He had long shown disdain for diplomacy, yet calculated his new path directly in line with what he thought the United States would accept and support. And although he had forced Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to remain a prisoner in his Ramallah compound, after Arafat died in 2004 Sharon built a cordial relationship with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Despite years of antagonism, Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt, and King Abdullah II of Jordan gave Sharon public support in pursuing a solution to the conflict. Those close to him said he had always been more pragmatic than most people realized.

Pragmatism and resilience

Thick-limbed and heavyset, with blue eyes, a ready smile and a shock of blond hair that whitened as he aged, Sharon was the archetypal Zionist farmer-soldier. He was not religiously observant, but he was deeply attached to Jewish history and culture and to the land where much of that history had occurred. He believed unshakably that reliance on others had brought his people disaster, and that Jews must assert and defend their collective needs without embarrassment or fear of censure.

As he put it in “Warrior,” his 1989 autobiography, “The great question of our day is whether we, the Jewish people of Israel, can find within us the will to survive as a nation.”

Defiant and brusque, Sharon had many enemies, who denounced him as self-promoting, self-righteous and unyielding. But he was also courtly to his political rivals and had a surprising sense of humor. His popular appeal was consistently underestimated.

He was dismissed as washed up in 1983 when he was forced to resign as defense minister after an official committee charged him with “indirect responsibility” for a Lebanese massacre of hundreds of Palestinians the previous year.

Sharon survived that humiliation and remained politically active enough to take command of his rudderless Likud Party after a 1999 rout by Labor. Even then, he was viewed as a seat warmer for younger leaders, yet he surprised everyone again when, in 2001, he was elected prime minister in the biggest landslide in Israel’s history.

He entered office four months into a violent Palestinian uprising. Israeli voters selected him over Ehud Barak, his predecessor, in the hope that Sharon would restore security.

Given how he had crushed the Palestinian guerrilla infrastructure in Gaza in the early 1970s, there was logic to his election. But there was a paradox, too. It was Sharon’s visit, in September 2000, accompanied by hundreds of Israeli police officers, to the holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, that helped set off the riots that became the second Palestinian uprising.

Once elected, he brought dovish members of Labor into his cabinet to form a government of national unity to contend with growing Palestinian and Arab hostility after the collapse of a seven-year Middle East peace effort begun at Oslo, under the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin.

Sharon faced clashes between, on one side, Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and, on the other, Palestinian militiamen and guerrillas. And there were many episodes of Palestinian terrorism inside Israel.

He responded by sending envoys to the Palestinian leadership and calling for an end to the violence. But when that proved fruitless, he proceeded with force, moving tanks and heavy equipment into areas that Israel had previously turned over to Palestinian control.

The border with Lebanon also grew tense, and previously cordial relations with Jordan and Egypt, more moderate governments, froze. Hopes for amity between Israel and its neighbors seemed the dimmest in a decade.

But Sharon said that if peace could be forged out of the century-long conflict, he would be its blacksmith. He had, he said, a firm grasp on Israel’s security needs and understood his adversaries.

In the years before Sharon’s election, it was often said that the Middle East had entered a new era of coexistence fostered by the Oslo peace negotiations and increased global interdependence. This struck Sharon as dangerously naive, and most of his fellow Israelis came to agree with him.

“The war of independence has not ended,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in April 2001. “No, 1948 was just one chapter.” He added: “The end of the conflict will come only when the Arab world recognizes the innate right of the Jewish people to establish an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. And that recognition has not yet come.”

It was a theme taken up later by Netanyahu as well.

A Zionist vision

Sharon was born Ariel Scheinerman on Feb. 27, 1928, on a semicollective farm, or moshav, named Kfar Malal, about 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. His parents, Samuel Scheinerman and the former Vera Schneirov, had emigrated from Russia. His mother, from a wealthy Belarussian family, was forced to interrupt her studies in medicine by the Russian Revolution. His father was a Zionist youth leader and agronomy student in Russia and a farmer in Palestine.

The isolation and mistrust of others that characterized Sharon’s relationships throughout his life had familial roots. His parents, who brought him up to treasure classical music and Russian literature, disdained their fellow moshav dwellers as unlettered and uncouth. Theirs was the only farm on the moshav with a fence around it.

In his autobiography, Sharon described his father as cantankerous and stingy with love. As a child, he reported, he felt lonely. Known from boyhood by the nickname Arik, Sharon began his military career in the Gadna, a paramilitary high school organization.

After graduation and a special course, he became a Gadna instructor at an agricultural school. His own instructor, Micah Almog, told biographers that even then Sharon refused to follow any script given to him and insisted on teaching his own way. He also joined the Haganah, the main underground Zionist fighting brigade, which became the Israel Defense Forces after independence.

In 1947, Sharon worked for the Haganah in the vast, flat stretch north of Tel Aviv that is called the Sharon Plain. It was from there that he took his new Israeli family name in the emerging Zionist tradition of Hebraizing the names brought from the diaspora. This was part of the plan to create a “new Jew” rooted in the homeland and no longer tied to the Old World.

At the height of the independence war, in May 1948, Sharon’s unit was sent to take part in the battle of Latrun against the Jordanian army, at the foot of the hilly entrance to Jerusalem. It was a disastrous battle for the Zionists, and Sharon was badly wounded in the abdomen. Despite initial rescue efforts, he lay abandoned and bleeding for hours, and nearly died. It was an early and influential encounter with what he considered incompetence above him.

When he was 20, Sharon married a young Romanian immigrant named Margalit Zimmerman, who had been his student in Gadna and who went by the nickname Gali. After the 1948 war, he remained in the army and served in a number of posts around the country. In 1952, he took a leave from the army, and the couple moved to Jerusalem, where Sharon began Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University and his wife became a psychiatric nurse.

A reputation for boldness

Sharon had already earned a reputation as an effective battalion commander who believed that Israel had been timid in the face of Arab border provocation. Many of his superiors were wary of him, but others, including David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding prime minister, admired his boldness.

In 1953, Sharon was asked to form and lead the first elite commando force for special operations behind enemy lines. It was named Unit 101, and although it operated as an independent unit for less than a year, it became legendary in Israel. The aim of the unit was to retaliate for cross-border raids, Arab violations of the 1949 armistice agreements and attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

The unit’s first major operation came in October 1953, after an Israeli woman and her two children were murdered while sleeping in their home in the town of Yehud. Sharon led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian town of Qibya, which was said to be harboring Palestinian guerrillas.

The battle of Qibya, in which 69 people were killed, more than half of them women and children, and 45 houses were demolished, brought Israel its first condemnation by the U.N. Security Council and became a Palestinian rallying cry for a generation.

A furor erupted in Israel over the civilian deaths, but the government did not to investigate and covered up for the commando unit by saying that no Israeli soldiers had been involved. The raid, Ben-Gurion said at the time, must have been by people around Jerusalem, “refugees from Arab countries and survivors of Nazi concentration camps, who had suffered terribly at the hands of their tormentors and had shown great restraint until now.”

Unit 101 cultivated a sense among its members of being above rules and able to operate under the most severe conditions, an attitude that later permeated all elite Israeli military units.

In the 1956 Sinai campaign, Sharon commanded a paratroop brigade and violated orders by driving his men deep into Sinai to the Mitla Pass, where they were ambushed by Egyptian forces and sustained dozens of deaths, with scores of soldiers wounded. He had been unaware of a deal among Britain, France and Israel regarding the Mitla Pass. He was not shy with his complaints or sense of betrayal, and when the war ended his career suffered.

It was a period of personal loss as well. In May 1962, his wife, Gali, was killed when the car she was driving veered out of its lane and was hit by a truck. Sharon later married Gali’s younger sister, Lily, who had followed her to Israel. Lily became a mother to his son Gur, and together she and Sharon had two more sons, Omri and Gilad.

In 1964, Sharon’s flagging military career was revived by Rabin, then the chief of staff, who made him chief of the northern command. When the 1967 war broke out in June, Sharon was sent south to his old command area and played a crucial role on the Egyptian front.

When the war ended in a stunning victory for Israel — which had tripled its land mass and defeated the combined armies of Jordan, Syria and Egypt — Sharon felt a euphoria nearly unmatched in his life, he wrote in his autobiography.

Personal tragedy struck again soon. In October 1967, Gur, 11, his eldest son, was playing with friends with an old hunting rifle, stuffing it with gunpowder. A neighbor boy playfully aimed it at Gur’s head and pulled the trigger. Sharon, who was alone in the house at the time, ran out at the sound of the blast, scooped his son off the ground and flagged down a passing car to go to a hospital. The boy died en route.

His wife, Lily, remained Sharon’s fiercely loyal companion until her death from cancer in 2000. His two sons survive him, as do a number of grandchildren.

A turn to politics

Sharon’s relations with his military superiors remained tense as the country faced intermittent Palestinian guerrilla attacks in what became known as the War of Attrition. He was nearly thrown out of the army in 1969.

In 1970, as commander of the south, Sharon crushed Palestinian guerrilla units in the Gaza Strip. He bulldozed homes and groves, imposed collective punishment, set up intelligence units of Israelis who could pass for Palestinians and established the first Jewish settlements to hamper travel and communication of Palestinians.

In 1973, Sharon felt drawn to politics. With help from American friends, he also bought a large farm in the Negev Desert — it remains the largest privately owned farm in the country — and talked about retirement from the military. But that October, a shocking invasion by Egypt and Syria, a war that Israel nearly lost, delayed his plans.

He pulled off his most extraordinary feat of combat when he waged a daring crossing of the Suez Canal behind Egyptian lines, a move often described as either brilliant or foolhardy, and a turning point in the war.

Sharon had been hit in the head by a shifting tank turret, and photographs of him with his head bandaged appeared in many newspapers and remain a symbol of that war. After that, Sharon did retire and helped engineer the birth of the Likud bloc, a political union between the Liberal Party and the more right-wing Herut Party of Menachem Begin.

Begin, who was in many ways more Polish than Israeli, admired Sharon for his gruffness, courage and energy, and as a native-born symbol of the emancipated Jew. Sharon won his first election to Parliament, on the Likud ticket, in December 1973. But he quickly found the confines of Parliament, with its wheeling and dealing and endless committee meetings, not to his liking. He fought with his political allies, grew impatient and thirsted for more decisive action.

In the spring, he led a group of Israelis into the West Bank near the city of Nablus and, using the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of Parliament, helped them establish an illegal settlement. He then quit Parliament and returned to the army. Rabin had become prime minister and brought Sharon into the prime minister’s office as a special adviser. He held the job for about a year, and Sharon later wrote that this first exposure to central political power had been extremely instructive.

In 1977, Begin’s Likud bloc beat Labor in the general elections, the first time in Israeli history that Labor was ousted from power. Its loss was the result of several factors: the 1973 military debacle, rampant party corruption, and the feeling of neglect and injury of Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Arab world, the Sephardim, who had become a majority of the population.

Sharon, who had struck out on his own with an independent party that failed to take off, joined the Begin cabinet as agriculture minister and set about constructing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to prevent Israel from relinquishing the territory. The plan worked well, forcing future Israeli governments to care for and protect the settlers, who now number more than 350,000 in the West Bank, with an additional 200,000 in annexed areas of East Jerusalem.

Shortly after Begin’s election, the Egyptian president, Anwar el-Sadat, offered to come to Jerusalem and negotiate a peace treaty in exchange for a full return to Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula, lost in the 1967 war, and autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It was a historic offer, and many Israelis did not know whether the Egyptians could be trusted. Sharon was among the doubters and voted against the deal as a cabinet member, although he then voted for it in the full Parliament. The offer led to the Camp David accords and the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which returned Sinai to Egypt.

Sharon made no secret of his ambition to be defense minister, but he had to wait until the 1981 re-election of Begin. He made clear that his biggest concern was southern Lebanon, where Palestinian guerrilla groups had taken advantage of that country’s chaos and set up a ministate, with militias and weapons, using it as a launching pad for attacks on Israel’s north.

Lebanon and beyond

In June 1982, after Palestinian guerrillas tried to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London, leaving him critically wounded, Sharon began the invasion of Lebanon, saying that it would last 48 hours. He saw it as an opportunity not only to remove the Palestinian threat but also to form a strategic alliance with Lebanon’s Christian elite by helping install its members in a new government and signing a peace treaty with a second neighbor.

Things went well at first. The Israeli military rooted out the Palestinian groups and built an alliance with the Phalangist Party, led by the Gemayel family. Sharon’s popularity in Israel soared.

But the Reagan administration and others grew wary and then angry as the Israeli invasion seemed not to end but rather to take on an increasingly punishing nature, including the saturation bombing of Beirut neighborhoods and delaying agreed-upon cease-fires. Some historians have accused Sharon of deceiving Begin and the rest of the Cabinet on his broader intent for the war as it progressed.

Whether he was acting alone or in concert, Sharon saw his plans for Lebanon derail. Less than three weeks after his ally Bashir Gemayel was elected president in late August with the Israeli military’s help, he was assassinated in an explosion at his party headquarters.

The Israelis decided to secure several West Beirut neighborhoods, including Sabra and Shatila, Palestinian refugee camps where the Palestine Liberation Organization had residual bases and arms and thousands of fighters. But rather than move in themselves, the Israelis sent in the Phalangists, who killed hundreds of civilians. The massacre provoked international outrage, and many Israelis, already despondent that the “48-hour” Lebanon incursion had turned into a lengthy military and geopolitical adventure, were outraged. There were furious calls for Sharon’s resignation.

Sharon and Begin said this was intolerable slander. As Begin said, using the Hebrew word for non-Jews, “Goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews.” Nonetheless, even Begin started to distance himself from Sharon, whose political demise began to seem inevitable.

The government established an official investigation of the massacre, led by Israel’s chief justice, Yitzhak Kahan. The investigating committee absolved Sharon of direct responsibility but said he should have anticipated that sending enraged militiamen of the Phalange into Palestinian neighborhoods right after the assassination of the group’s leader amounted to an invitation to carnage. The committee recommended his resignation.

Time magazine reported that Sharon had actually urged the Gemayel family to have its troops take revenge on the Palestinians for the death of Gemayel. The magazine said Sharon had made this point during his condolence visit to the family. It claimed further that a secret appendix to the Kahan Commission report made this clear.

Sharon sued Time for libel and won a partial victory in U.S. District Court in New York City. The court found that the secret appendix, which contained names of Israeli intelligence officers, included no assertion by Sharon of the need for Phalangist revenge. But it ruled that Sharon had not been libeled because he could not prove “malice” on the part of the magazine.

In February 1983, the Israeli cabinet voted 16-1 to remove Sharon as defense minister. He remained as a minister without portfolio. His was the sole dissenting vote.

Depressed over the war and his wife’s recent death, Begin resigned as prime minister in September 1983 and was succeeded by Yitzhak Shamir. The 1984 election was a tie between Labor and Likud, and Sharon played a crucial role in negotiating a unity government with Shimon Peres of Labor whereby each party occupied the premiership for two years. Sharon remained active in politics throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

After Netanyahu defeated Peres in 1996 to become prime minister, Sharon joined Netanyahu at the Wye Plantation in Maryland to negotiate a continuation of the peace process with Arafat and the Palestinians.

But Sharon remained aloof from the talks, and pointedly refused to shake Arafat’s hand, as Rabin had done on the White House lawn in 1993. Sharon said that he had spent years trying to kill Arafat, and that he was not about to shake his hand.

Barak, of the Labor Party, defeated Netanyahu in 1999, but after the collapse of his peace talks with the Palestinians, Barak called for new elections for early 2001. It was widely expected that Netanyahu would run for the Likud Party. When he decided not to, Sharon, the stand-in party chief, became the unexpected candidate and surprise winner.

He brought Peres in as foreign minister, and the two septuagenarians, who as young men had sat at the elbows of Ben-Gurion when he ran the newly formed country, found themselves back together. Their partnership continued to thrive, and Peres left the Labor Party, which had been his political home his entire life, to join Sharon’s Kadima Party. Peres was later elected the country’s president.

Raanan Gissin, a close aide, said the main reason Sharon had gone from a champion of the settlements to an advocate of territorial withdrawal was growing international pressure for a Palestinian state.

“He was not an ideologue; he was a political architect,” Gissin said. “As a military man he knew one thing from the battlefield — you have to seize the initiative, you have to be the one driving the action. Even if peace was impossible, he wanted the process seeking it to be on his terms. And while he was in power, it was.”

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