Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state after a massive stroke, was a monumental figure in Israel’s modern history who epitomized the country’s warrior past even as he sought to become the architect of a peaceful future.
His death, at 85, was confirmed by a senior official in the Israeli prime minister’s office and Dr. Shlomo Noy of the Shedba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv, where Sharon had spent his last years.
As a soldier, defense minister and prime minister, Sharon fought or commanded forces in every one of Israel’s military conflicts for more than half a century, beginning with its 1948 independence war, and was author of the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a politician, he built the infrastructure of the country’s controversial settlement campaign in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, then stunned friend and foe alike by dismantling part of the project he had long championed.
Through it all, Sharon commanded center stage, insisting at times that he alone knew what was best for the state of Israel and persevering over six decades to finally emerge as prime minister in 2001, after countless humiliations that would have long killed off the careers of less determined men. At the time of his stroke in January 2006, he was in the process of seeking to extend his time in office by forging a new centrist political movement based upon his personal popularity.
The man who chose the title “Warrior” for his autobiography was for much of his career the darling of the Israeli right, which chanted “Arik, King of Israel!” invoking his nickname and comparing him to the legendary biblical King David.
For decades, he used that support to undermine governments of both the rival Labor and his own Likud parties and advance his personal political agenda. But in later years, as he first organized Israel’s withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and made plans for pullbacks from parts of the West Bank, the right denounced him as a traitor.
The more dovish left, which had long feared and despised him, had begun to reevaluate his motives and policies and accord him a grudging respect. Meanwhile, for moderates on both sides of Israel’s bitter political divide, weary and exhausted after years of conflict and false dawns, Sharon came to embody the country’s eternal quest for security. While he did not always share their hopes, he understood and spoke to their fears.
Critics said Sharon suffered from a Napoleon complex and consciously encouraged a cult of personality that posed a threat to democracy. He insisted that he had never wavered from his primary principle of unswerving devotion to the state and to the Jewish people. But he said he had come to recognize that the view from the prime minister’s office was like the verse of a popular Israeli song: There are “some things you can see from here [that] you can’t see from there.”
Ariel Scheinermann was born Feb. 27, 1928, in Palestine, then under British mandatory rule, in a cooperative farming village. In his memoirs, he wrote that he often thought back to “working with my father on that arid slope of land, walking behind him to plant the seeds in the earth he had turned with his hoe. When I felt too exhausted to go on, he would stop for a moment to look backwards, to see how much we had already done. And that would always give me heart for what remained.”
He took the Hebrew name for “plain” (as in the Israeli coastal plain of Sharon) and as a teenager joined the Haganah, the main Jewish underground movement opposed to British rule. During Israel’s war of independence, he commanded an infantry unit and was wounded during the battle to secure the road to besieged Jerusalem.
After spending time as a reservist, Sharon was recalled to create and command Unit 101, which was tasked with conducting commando operations against Palestinian guerrillas. It was there that he first won recognition for his brutally effective tactics and retaliatory raids.
Even David Ben-Gurion, founding patriarch of the Jewish state, recognized the younger man’s potential — and weaknesses. “An original, visionary young man,” Ben-Gurion wrote of Sharon in his personal diary in 1960. “Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth and to distance himself from gossip, he would be an exceptional military leader.”
Sharon fought with distinction during the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, and earned the title “The Bulldozer” in the early 1970s for rooting out Palestinian resistance in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip in part by plowing open lanes to allow Israeli armored vehicles to move through densely populated civilian zones.
He led the daring but bloody attack across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that rolled back Egyptian forces. Critics inside the army accused him of disobeying orders, overstretching his supply lines and causing needless casualties, but supporters said his audacious campaign left Israel in a superior tactical position when a cease-fire was declared.
His exploits made him a popular swashbuckling figure with many Israelis. At the same time, he gained notoriety among his superiors as a relentless maverick and self-promoter.
After his reputation prevented him from gaining a foothold in the ruling Labor Party, he helped found the opposition Likud coalition that eventually took power under Menachem Begin in 1977. Begin named Sharon as agriculture minister, a post he used to launch the massive construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. When Begin was reelected in 1981, Sharon gained the post he had long coveted: defense minister.
Sharon, who saw himself as a master strategist, argued that possession of the West Bank was crucial to Israel’s security and that the nearly 1 million Palestinians who lived there should look to neighboring Jordan as their future state.
He saw Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, then based in Beirut and southern Lebanon, as the supreme obstacle to his geopolitical vision. Using PLO raids on Israel as his justification, he set out to break the movement’s power with an ambitious invasion that took the Israeli army to the gates of Beirut.
Sharon took personal command of the operation, at times overruling his own generals and ignoring objections from field commanders who argued he was risking too many soldiers’ lives and inflicting needless damage on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
The operation eventually succeeded in expelling Arafat and his fighters to Tunis. But critics, including some of Begin’s closest advisers, accused Sharon of having deceived the prime minister and the cabinet about the extent of his invasion plans — allegations Sharon always denied.
The Lebanon campaign eventually alienated the Reagan administration and a large swath of the Israeli public, and helped give birth to a new peace movement inside the country.
Sharon was forced to resign after an independent Israeli judicial commission ruled that he bore indirect responsibility for failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps south of Beirut by Israel’s Lebanese Christian militia allies. He later sued for libel and won a retraction and settlement from Time magazine for an article that claimed he had sanctioned the massacre in advance.
His political career might have ended then, but Sharon clawed his way back into the cabinet in the politically fractious “national unity governments” that ruled between 1984 and 1990, and later resumed his settlement-building program for the West Bank and Gaza as housing minister under Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Even though Shamir was considered a hard-liner, Sharon campaigned against him from the right, undermining the government’s efforts to placate Washington with a tentative peace plan.
Sharon also oversaw the ambitious building campaign to house hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who poured into Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union, cutting through red tape but authorizing massive over-expenditures.
He was widely seen in those days as the self-anointed champion of the hard right who had opposed both the historic Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993.
Sharon rejected the concept that Israel could gain peace by returning conquered Arab territory — the basic formula behind those agreements — remaining convinced that most Arabs would never accept the existence of a Jewish state in their midst, that the conflict would continue indefinitely and that Israel’s only hope was to remain stronger, smarter and more relentless than its enemies.
For distinguished foreign visitors — including then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 1998 — Sharon would unfurl maps showing Israel’s geographic vulnerability and emphasize the point with helicopter tours over the West Bank and Golan Heights.
But unlike many of his supporters, who held a mystical religious belief in the Greater Land of Israel, the secularist Sharon based his view on his own blunt, pragmatic assessment rather than on ideology.
Sharon again seemed destined for the political scrap heap in 1996 after his younger Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, was elected prime minister. But Netanyahu was eventually compelled to appoint Sharon as foreign minister. And after Netanyahu was defeated in 1999, Sharon became Likud chairman.
Sharon’s controversial visit in September, 2000 to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, or Noble Sanctuary, a site considered holy to both Muslims and Jews, helped trigger a second Palestinian uprising that smothered hopes for a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
After a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings of civilian targets and Israeli military reprisals, voters turned to Sharon, overwhelmingly electing him prime minister in 2001.
The new prime minister waged a multi-pronged campaign of aerial bombings, ground attacks, targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders, temporary reoccupation of major West Bank cities and, ultimately, the construction of a barrier around and through the West Bank to cut off large portions of Palestinian territory from Israeli population centers.
The campaign wreaked enormous physical damage on the West Bank and Gaza and deepened the area’s poverty and despair, but succeeded in suffocating the uprising.
Critics said the old militaristic Sharon was back. But defense analyst Yosef Alpher noted some subtle distinctions. Sharon, he said, had learned two important lessons from the Lebanon debacle: “Don’t alienate the United States and don’t get too far out in front of Israeli public opinion.”
From the start, Sharon had a sympathetic Bush administration in his corner. President Bush hailed him as “a man of peace” in 2002, and while Bush embraced the prospect of an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel, he also stated publicly that the final territory of such a state would not include some of the large Jewish population centers Sharon had helped construct in the West Bank.
The gradual collapse of the second uprising, followed by Arafat’s death in November 2004, led Sharon to see new opportunities. He opened talks with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, while at the same time launching a unilateral initiative to withdraw from Gaza and four isolated West Bank settlements.
His motives were pragmatic: He said he had reluctantly concluded that the handful of small Jewish settlements in Gaza were a detriment to Israeli security. Some critics said he was disengaging from Gaza to shore up Israel’s hold on the West Bank, while others argued that he had set off a process that would inevitably lead to withdrawal from other Palestinian territory.
Sharon said Israel had no interest in ruling the more than 3.5 million Palestinians in the territories, but remained unclear about the size and powers of a future Palestinian state.
The Gaza disengagement infuriated his former allies — in the months before his stroke, his security team had stepped up its protection out of fear of an assassination attempt by Jewish extremists like the one who gunned down Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
When Sharon had difficulty enforcing unity within his ruling Likud party — and faced the prospect of a newly resurgent Netanyahu evicting him from power — he and his advisers opted to form a new political movement called Kadima, which means “Forward” in Hebrew.
It was an audacious move designed to appeal, over the heads of the political establishment, to the battered Israeli mainstream, which was tired of the conflict yet unwilling to take security risks for a peace settlement.
After Sharon’s massive stroke, the party won a slim victory in March 2006 elections and Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. But Olmert was driven from office in 2009 because of corruption charges (he was acquitted in 2012 of two of the three main counts), and without Sharon at the helm, Kadima’s popularity gradually faded.
Many Israelis trusted Sharon as a political leader because of his long-standing experience as a soldier and strategist and because they believed he would move only as far and as fast as he felt absolutely necessary.
He was a leader who had shed blood, yet who had also known personal tragedy. His first wife, the former Margalit Zimmerman, died in a car accident in 1962, and their son, Gur, died in a shooting accident five years later.
Soon after Margalit’s death, Sharon wed her younger sister, Lily, and they were married until her death of cancer in 2000. Survivors include two sons from his second marriage, Gilad and Omri; and six grandchildren.
Omri Sharon pleaded guilty to providing false testimony and falsifying documents during an investigation of political corruption. He served five months in prison. Sharon remained under investigation in the case, which involved allegations of illegal funding in his seizure of the Likud leadership before he became prime minister.
In his later years, Sharon developed a large paunch and a soft, gentle smile that gave him a grandfatherly image. He jealously guarded the weekends he spent on his sprawling ranch in the Negev desert and spoke fondly of eventual retirement.
Sharon was first hospitalized on Dec. 18, 2005, reportedly after a mild stroke. But 17 days later he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma from which he never emerged. In the ensuing years, his condition was shrouded in secrecy. But in November 2010 it was announced that his two sons had taken him home. Gilad Sharon told the New York Times in October 2011 that the stay had been brief and that his father had been returned to the hospital.
Gilad Sharon confirmed that he and his brother had overruled their father’s doctors and insisted that Sharon receive surgery and other measures to sustain his life. “He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly,” wrote Gilad Sharon in a book published in 2011. “Large, strong, self-assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he’s awake, he looks out with a penetrating stare. He hasn’t lost a single pound; on the contrary, he’s gained some.”
Until Sharon’s final stroke, he remained convinced that only he could successfully oversee Israel’s transition to a more secure state. His bottom line, he told Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in 2005, had not changed. However he managed the purported peace process, he would not risk “the blood of a single Israeli citizen.”
Glenn Frankel, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, is the former Jerusalem bureau chief of The Washington Post. William Booth and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.