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

Few if any Israelis could claim to have left a greater imprint on the country

January 11, 2014|By John Murphy, The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM — 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.

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