Ariel Sharon, Israel’s 11th prime minister, will go down in its military and political figure as a commanding and controversial figure – and a flawed giant. Born on Feb. 26, 1928, he died on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, aged 85, without recovering from an eight-year coma induced by a stroke he suffered in 2006.
Sharon was one of Israel’s most celebrated, victorious and innovative generals – and a maverick. He served the Israeli army from its inception in 1948, founding some of its elite units and leading key operations in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and its troubled aftermath.
He emerged from the assault on Sinai in the Six-Day war of 1967 as a brilliant military strategist. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he led a force that encircled the Egyptian Third Army and crossed the Suez, cutting short its massive advance through Sinai to the Israeli frontier. Sharon saved the country by acting in defiance of orders, a fact forgotten by a grateful nation who hailed him as a hero, although he paid for it by failing to attain the top IDF command.
He then brought his sledgehammer style and conflicted nature into politics. He first joined Likud and was assigned various ministerial portfolios under Prime Minister Menahem Begin in 1977-92 and in Binyamin Netanyahu’s first administration in 1996-99.
As defense minister, he led the IDF to victory against the Palestinians in the 1982 Lebanon War, forcing Yasser Arafat and PLO leaders to abandon their South Lebanese strongholds on the Israeli border and go into exile in Tunisia.
But then the world media backed by the Israeli left factions held him responsible for failing to prevent the Lebanese Phalangists’ massacre in the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon eventually won a suit for libel against Time Magazine, but association with that atrocity continued to dog him and forced him into early retirement from politics.
In 2000, Sharon made a comeback as Likud leader. Then in 2001, a nation desperate for a savior from the non-stop suicide bombings and bus burnings of the Palestinian intifada massively elected him prime minister.
In a four-month operation he launched in 2002, the IDF resoundingly defeated the Palestinian front. Sharon went on to construct a defense wall along the Green Line as a barrier between the West Bank. He finally held Yasser Arafat, intifada leader, to siege in his Ramallah center of rule.
This second siege, like the first in Beirut two decades earlier, ended in Arafat’s exit – this time to France.
In 2005, the hawk and dynamic champion of Israeli West Bank settlement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, underwent a remarkable transformation. In the face of stormy resistance, he orchestrated Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, forcibly evicting all 8,000 settlers and every last soldier. Under television cameras, weeping families were hauled from their homes which were then razed to the ground. Condemned for this brutal operation in many circles, especially his own Likud, he quit the party and formed the centrist Kadima.
Then on Jan. 4, 2006, on the way to easy re-election for another term as prime minister, Sharon was suddenly incapacitated by a crippling stroke. He relapsed into a coma, from which he never recovered.
Thursday, Jan. 1, his health began to deteriorate due to kidney failure. His doctors advised the family that corrective procedure would be too risky to undertake in his condition and at his age.
With all his flaws, Ariel Sharon, the general and national leader went down as an invincible lion.