(JTA) — Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s last warrior statesmen, whose military and political careers were woven into his nation’s triumphs and failures, has died.
Sharon, 85, died Saturday at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv after eight years in a coma. “He went when he decided to go,” said his younger son, Gilad, who has become the fierce guardian of his father’s legacy.
He was among the last of Israel’s founding fathers, fighting in every Israeli military conflict in the first three decades of the state.
As a military general, Sharon helped turn the tide of the Yom Kippur War with Egypt in 1973. As defense minister, he plunged his nation into the crucible of Lebanon in 1982, an engagement that nearly cut short his career after he was found to bear indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.
But Sharon would rise from the ashes of that calamity to effect an astonishing about-face as prime minister, orchestrating the evacuation of thousands of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip after spending the bulk of his career championing the settlement enterprise.
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As prime minister, Sharon began the construction of Israel’s controversial security fence in the West Bank. His overriding concern, Sharon always said, was to protect a nation built on the ashes of the destruction of European Jewry.
“I arrived here today from Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, the only place where Jews have the right and capability to defend themselves by themselves,” he said in a May 2005 visit to Auschwitz to mark 60 years since the Holocaust.
He forged affectionate bonds with Diaspora Jewish leaders, interspersing his English with Yiddishisms and often urging them to emigrate to Israel.
“Sharon worked his entire life for the unity of the Jewish people,” said a statement from the Jewish Federations of North America. “He was closely engaged with Jewish communities around the world, and acutely aware of their needs and aspirations. In all his leadership roles, and especially as prime minister of the Jewish state, Sharon engaged with Jewish communities across the Diaspora.”
Lionized and scorned for his bluntness, Sharon was nicknamed “the Bulldozer” both for his tendency to disrespect boundaries and his legendary girth.
Ideological loyalties meant little to the man known in Israel simply as Arik. In 1973, he helped cobble together the Likud party from a coalition of interests that had little in common except that they had been frozen out of government for decades by the ruling Labor party.
A generation later, in 2005, he bolted Likud to form Kadima, a centrist party that attracted lawmakers from Likud and Labor, including his old partner and rival Shimon Peres.
As agriculture minister in the first Likud government, from 1977 to 1981, Sharon vastly expanded Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 2005, he led the disengagement from Gaza, overseeing the evacuation of nearly 10,000 Israelis from 21 communities in Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank.
“Sharon did what no one on the left was able to do,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive magazine Tikkun. “Split the right, marginalize the extremists who believe that holding on to the biblical vision of the Land of Israel is a divine mandate, and acknowledge that a smaller Israel with defensible borders is preferable to a large Israel that requires domination of 3 million Palestinians.”
Born Ariel Scheinermann in 1928 to Russian-speaking parents in the village of Kfar Mala in the central part of prestate Israel, Sharon for much of his career was known more for his impetuousness than his pragmatism.
His bravery in the battle for Jerusalem in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence made the infantry unit commander the stuff of legend at the age of 20. He took a bullet to the stomach and, when all seemed hopeless, ordered the soldiers who were able to retreat. He eventually crawled to safety.
Five years later, Sharon led a raid on the Jordan-ruled West Bank town of Kibya in retaliation for a terrorist attack that killed an Israeli mother and her two children. The raid killed 69 Palestinians, half of them women and children. Sharon claimed he hadn’t known there were people in the homes he was blowing up, but the stain marked his subsequent military and political careers.
In the 1956 war with Egypt, Sharon captured the strategic Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula after defying orders not to advance. During the 1973 war, he again challenged his superiors who feared crossing the Suez Canal was a risky maneuver that would incur too many losses. But Sharon prevailed, leading his forces across the canal and trapping an Egyptian army unit, a move many consider a turning point in the conflict.
His penchant for insubordination making it unlikely he would ever secure the top military job, Sharon quit the army in 1972 — returning only to fight in the Yom Kippur War — and launched his political career. His ability to keep an unruly coalition in line helped Likud leader Menachem Begin win the 1977 elections, ending the hegemony that Labor leaders had enjoyed since the founding of the state.
Sharon was rewarded with the agriculture portfolio, ostensibly because of his farming roots, but also because he turned the ministry into a cash cow for the settlement movement. After another hard-fought Likud victory in 1981, Begin could hardly deny Sharon the prize he had sought for so long: the Defense Ministry.
A year later, in June 1982, Sharon launched Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to push back Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization from its mini-state in southern Lebanon. The invasion rankled both the Reagan administration, which had brokered a mostly successful cease-fire with the PLO nine months earlier, and Sharon’s government colleagues.
On Sharon’s orders, the army breached the 40-kilometer line the government initially said was its goal, pursuing the PLO all the way to Beirut, where it laid siege to the city.
“If he gets the chance, he’ll surround the Knesset with his tanks,” Begin once reportedly joked of Sharon.
The Lebanon war also would give birth to one of the darkest stains on Sharon’s career — the September 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies. A state commission subsequently cleared Sharon of knowing in advance of the massacre, but held him indirectly responsible, asserting that he should have anticipated and prevented the carnage.
The commission recommended Sharon’s dismissal, and by the beginning of 1983 he was gone from power. The exile would not last long, however. Sharon rebuilt his reputation, this time as a careful nurturer of alliances. He was an architect of the national unity governments that lasted until 1990.
When Likud returned to power in 1996, Sharon became national infrastructure minister and later foreign minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Americans and Palestinians alike said they appreciated Sharon’s role as an elder statesman who would make sure Netanyahu kept his word. Sharon was critical in achieving the 1998 Wye River Accords that kept the peace process alive through the rest of Netanyahu’s term.
In 1999, Labor’s Ehud Barak ousted Netanyahu, who temporarily retired from politics, and Sharon became head of the Likud. The following year, Sharon visited the Temple Mount accompanied by a large escort of security officers, inflaming Palestinians and — some have charged — helping to provoke the second intifada.
The uprising derailed Barak’s efforts to accelerate peace talks and Sharon was overwhelmingly elected prime minister in February 2001. In a flash, the sidelined statesman and disgraced defense minister, the soldier once marked as brilliant but uncontrollable, was in charge. His contemporaries who had kept him back were dead, retired or marginalized.
Sharon and President George W. Bush, who assumed power at the same time, had an affinity dating to 1998, when Sharon hosted the then-Texas governor on a helicopter flight across Israel and the West Bank. Their friendship culminated in Sharon’s greatest diplomatic triumph: the 2004 White House letter recognizing some of Israel’s largest West Bank settlements as realities on the ground and dismissing the demand for a “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
In 2005, Sharon carried out one of the most astonishing moves of his career, abandoning his longstanding support for Israeli settlements by evacuating thousands of settlers from Gaza and relocating them inside Israel proper. Months after the disengagement was completed, he broke from Likud, much of which had opposed the operation, and formed Kadima.
His appetites, like his personal ambition, knew few bounds. He routinely feasted on grilled meats on Jerusalem’s Agrippas Street, famous for its late-night eateries. He had gallstones and kidney stones removed, suffered from gout and, at 5 feet, 7 inches tall, was extremely obese.
In December 2005, Sharon was rushed to the hospital after aides noticed impairment in his speech. He was released two days later having suffered a mild stroke. Weeks later, in January 2006, Sharon suffered a second stroke that left him in a vegetative state from which he would never recover.
Here, too, Sharon defied expectations, holding on for eight more years, fed by a tube but breathing on his own. About a year ago, scientists reported that Sharon had exhibited brain activity in response to external stimulation, a finding that suggested he might have regained some ability to comprehend what was going on around him.
His medical condition began deteriorating significantly in recent days, prompting renal failure followed by a decline in organ function.
Throughout his career, Sharon’s motivations were a subject of considerable speculation. How could the man who had cleaned Gaza of terrorists as southern commander in 1971 and helped sire the settlement movement wind up endorsing the 2003 road map for peace and evacuating thousands of settlers?
As a soldier and statesman, Sharon always maintained an acute sense of the possible and the improbable. And unlike some Likud colleagues who were ideologically wed to the notion of Greater Israel, Sharon showed himself capable of putting strategic considerations above other loyalties.
“The Palestinians will always be our neighbors,” the man who once bridled at the mere mention of the word “Palestinian” told the United Nations in September 2005. “They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.”
Sharon is survived by two sons: Gilad, 46, who has been a keeper of his father’s flame, tending the family farm and publishing a compilation of his father’s writings in 2011, and Omri, 49, who served in the Knesset from 2003 to 2006 and carved out a niche as an environmentalist. Omri Sharon quit because of a corruption probe and served a four-month prison sentence in 2008.
Sharon’s first wife, Margalit, died in an automobile accident in 1962. Two years later he married her younger sister, Lily, who died of cancer in 2000. A son, Gur, from his first marriage died in a shooting accident in 1967.
Matthew Berger and Ben Sales contributed to this report.