Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel and one of the country’s most iconic and controversial leaders, died Saturday after eight years in a coma, according to Israeli Army Radio. He was 85.
A legendary general who became known as “the Bulldozer” after entering politics, he was seen as responsible for Israel’s disputed settlement project and a bloody war in Lebanon – but also adopted peace-making policies at the end of his career, which was cut short with him at the top.
“My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle today,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said Saturday. “Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. 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. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed. I send my condolences to the Sharon family, may he rest in peace.”
His son Gilad Sharon said: “He has gone. He went when he decided to go.”
ISRAEL GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE/AP
Sharon is shown in this May 29, 1967 file photo shortly before the 1967 Mideast War.
Primed to win reelection at the pinnacle of his political power, Sharon suffered a massive brain hemorrhage in Jan. 2006, a month after having a small stroke. He remained in a vegetative state ever since and faced a setback in recent weeks, leading to kidney failure, according to media reports.
A spokesman for Tel HaShomer Hospital outside Tel Aviv said Wednesday that Sharon’s condition “deteriorated in the past few days.”
He was with his sons, Omri and Gilad, when he passed.
Sharon meets in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.
In 2005, the longtime hawk and military stalwart shocked Israel and the world when he led the country’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of military rule.
He then left his political home of the Likud Party to establish the centrist Kadima Party and was expected to approve further concessions to Palestinians before he suddenly became incapacitated.
In his earlier days, Sharon was known as a brilliant strategist and fearless fighter who sometimes overlooked orders. He was nicknamed “The King of Israel” and earned a reputation of getting things done as a brash statesman, but was also loathed for years by wide segments of the Israeli left.
Sharon smiles after addressing the plenery session of the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Chicago on November 14, 2000.
Sharon was a soldier in Israel’s army since its inception in 1948, starting off as a paratrooper during the War of Independence and playing pivotal parts in each of the nations’s subsequent wars.
In the 1950s, he founded Unit 101, a special forces crew that carried out reprisal operations against Palestinians.
He rose through the ranks and, during the Six Days War in 1967, led the crucial armored division that stormed through the Sinai. His strategy and innovations became the stuff of legend and earned him praises from military researchers.
Sharon shakes hands with supporters as he arrives to vote in Jerusalem on September 2, 1999.
He retired in Aug. 1973 as the head of the Southern Command but returned to active duty two months later, when the Yom Kippur War broke out.
His ground maneuver in the Sinai to cut off the Egyptian Army’s advances is regarded as the turning point in that front. A picture depicting the famed general with a bandaged head in the Suez Canal became an iconic image in his country.
Sharon’s recall to the army held off a nascent political career, which he fully renewed in 1977, when the Likud Party ascended to power and he was appointed Minister of Agriculture. The rookie politician encouraged Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arguing they’re necessary to prevent the return of refugees to the occupied territories, and the number of Jewish outposts doubled during his tenure.
Mayor Giuliani and Ariel Sharon meet at the Mayor’s Office.
He was given the plum Minister of Defense job after the next elections and piloted the army into the 1982 Lebanon War. He was blamed for the the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian militias during the conflict and an investigative commission recommended his removal from the ministry post.
Sharon bore personal responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed,” the Kahan Commission concluded.
He eventually agreed to step down as Defense Minister but stayed in the government and later handled various portfolios in subsequent administrations.
In 2001, Sharon was elected Israel’s 11th prime minister and announced his commitment to peace with the Palestinians. In 2005, he formed a coalition government and, despite opposition within his own Likud Party and other right wing factions, led the disengagement from Gaza, expelling nearly 10,000 Jewish settlers from the narrow southern strip.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, left, talks to reporters as Sharon stands at right at the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 3, 1996.
Facing internal dissent, he dissolved the government later that year and formed the new party that was favored in polls against his bitter rival, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Following Sharon’s stroke, his deputy Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister.
Sharon was born in 1928 in the agricultural moshav Kfar Malal. He joined a paramilitary youth battalion at age 14 and was later involved in fighting against the British Mandate.
His first wife, Margalit, died in a car accident in 1962 and their son, Gur, died five years after that when a friend accidentally shot him with a rifle. Sharon later married Margalit’s sister, Lily, who died of cancer in 2000. They had two sons, Omri and Gilad.
Sharon lived in Havat Shikmim, the family’s sheep ranch in the Negev Desert. In 2010, relatives planned to return him there for home treatment but he was taken back to the hospital following a 48-hour stay.
With News Wire Services
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