Ariel Sharon, Fierce Defender of a Strong Israel, Dies at 85

By JAN. 11, 2014

Ariel Sharon, 1928-2014

Nir Elias/Reuters

Ariel Sharon, one of the most influential figures in Israel’s history, a military commander and political leader who at the height of his power redrew the country’s electoral map only to suffer a severe stroke from which he never recovered, died Saturday in a hospital near Tel Aviv. He was 85.

Gilad Sharon, one of his two surviving sons, told reporters at the hospital where the former prime minister spent most of the last eight years that his father “went when he decided to go.”

A cunning and unforgiving general who went on to hold nearly every top government post, including prime minister at the time he was struck ill, Mr. Sharon spent his final years in what doctors defined as a state of minimal consciousness in a sterile suite at the hospital, Sheba Medical Center. Visits were restricted for fear of infection.

Prof. Shlomo Nov of the medical center said heart failure was “the direct cause of his death,” resulting from organ deterioration that had deepened over “a number of days.”

TIMELINE

Sharon, Through the Years

As a warrior and political leader whose reputation rose and fell with the times, Ariel Sharon left a profound imprint on Israel.

 OPEN TIMELINE

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the nation bowed its head to a man he described as “first and foremost a brave soldier and an outstanding military commander” who “had a central role in the battle for Israel’s security from the very beginning.”

In many ways, Mr. Sharon’s story was that of his country’s. A champion of an iron-fisted, territory-expanding Zionism for most of his life, he stunned Israel and the world in 2005 with a Nixon-to-China reversal and withdrew all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. He then abandoned his Likud Party and formed a centrist movement called Kadima focused on further territorial withdrawal and a Palestinian state next door.

Mr. Sharon was incapacitated eight years ago, in January 2006, and in elections that followed, Kadima still won the most votes. His former deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. But the impact of Mr. Sharon’s political shift went beyond Kadima. The hawkish Likud Party, led by his rival, Mr. Netanyahu, was returned to power in 2009, and Mr. Netanyahu, too, said then that he favored a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

An architect of Israeli settlements in the occupied lands, Mr. Sharon gained infamy for his harsh tactics against the Palestinians over whom Israel ruled. That reputation began to soften after his election as prime minister in 2001, when he first talked about the inevitability of Palestinian statehood.

Israeli settlers, who had seen him as their patron, considered him an enemy after he won re-election in 2003. In addition to withdrawing from Gaza and a small portion of the West Bank, he completed part of a 450-mile barrier along and through parts of the West Bank — a barrier he had originally opposed. It not only reduced infiltration by militants into Israel but also provided the outline of a border with a future Palestinian state, albeit one he envisioned as having limited sovereignty.

Before becoming ill, Mr. Sharon was said to have been planning further withdrawals of Jewish settlers and troops from Palestinian lands in hopes of fulfilling the central goal of his life: ensuring a viable and strong state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland.

But even if he had stayed healthy, his plans might have been interrupted by the rise of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, the 2006 conflict with the militant group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and increased concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Sharon viewed negotiating with Palestinian leaders as pointless; he felt they had neither the will nor the power to live up to their promises. By carrying out the withdrawal unilaterally and building the barrier to include large Israeli settlement blocks, Mr. Sharon said he believed that he was ensuring a Jewish state with defensible borders. Critics argued that by redeploying without handing responsibility to the Palestinian Authority, he had increased the power of Hamas.

Mr. Sharon’s final years in power contained surprises beyond the settlement reversal. He had long shown disdain for diplomacy, yet calculated his new path directly in line with what he thought the United States would accept and support. And though he had forced Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to remain a prisoner in his Ramallah compound, after Mr. Arafat died in 2004 Mr. Sharon built a cordial relationship with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

Despite years of antagonism, Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt, and King Abdullah II of Jordan gave Mr. Sharon public support in pursuing a solution to the conflict. Those close to him said he had always been more pragmatic than most people realized.

Pragmatism and Resilience

Thick-limbed and heavyset, with blue eyes, a ready smile and a shock of blond hair that whitened as he aged, Mr. Sharon was the archetypal Zionist farmer-soldier. He was not religiously observant, but he was deeply attached to Jewish history and culture and to the land where much of that history had occurred. He believed unshakably that reliance on others had brought his people disaster, and that Jews must assert and defend their collective needs without embarrassment or fear of censure.

As he put it in “Warrior,” his 1989 autobiography, “The great question of our day is whether we, the Jewish people of Israel, can find within us the will to survive as a nation.”

Defiant and brusque, Mr. Sharon had many enemies, who denounced him as self-promoting, self-righteous and unyielding. But he was also courtly to his political rivals and had a surprising sense of humor. His popular appeal was consistently underestimated.

He was dismissed as washed up in 1983 when he was forced to resign as defense minister after an official committee charged him with “indirect responsibility” for a Lebanese massacre of hundreds of Palestinians the previous year.

Mr. Sharon survived that humiliation and remained politically active enough to take command of his rudderless Likud Party after a 1999 rout by Labor. Even then, he was viewed as a seat warmer for younger leaders, yet he surprised everyone again when, in 2001, he was elected prime minister in the biggest landslide in Israel’s history.

He entered office four months into a violent Palestinian uprising. Israeli voters selected him over Ehud Barak, his predecessor, in the hope that Mr. Sharon would restore security.

Given how he had crushed the Palestinian guerrilla infrastructure in Gaza in the early 1970s, there was logic to his election. But there was a paradox, too. It was Mr. Sharon’s visit, in September 2000, accompanied by hundreds of Israeli police officers, to the holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, that helped set off the riots that became the second Palestinian uprising.

Once elected, he brought dovish members of Labor into his cabinet to form a government of national unity to contend with growing Palestinian and Arab hostility after the collapse of a seven-year Middle East peace effort begun at Oslo, under the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr. Sharon faced clashes between, on one side, Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and, on the other, Palestinian militiamen and guerrillas. And there were many episodes of Palestinian terrorism inside Israel.

He responded by sending envoys to the Palestinian leadership and calling for an end to the violence. But when that proved fruitless, he proceeded with force, moving tanks and heavy equipment into areas that Israel had previously turned over to Palestinian control.

The border with Lebanon also grew tense, and previously cordial relations with Jordan and Egypt, more moderate governments, froze. Hopes for amity between Israel and its neighbors seemed the dimmest in a decade.

But Mr. Sharon said that if peace could be forged out of the century-long conflict, he would be its blacksmith. He had, he said, a firm grasp on Israel’s security needs and understood his adversaries.

In the years before Mr. Sharon’s election, it was often said that the Middle East had entered a new era of coexistence fostered by the Oslo peace negotiations and increased global interdependence. This struck Mr. Sharon as dangerously naïve, and most of his fellow Israelis came to agree with him.

“The war of independence has not ended,” he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in April 2001. “No, 1948 was just one chapter.” He added: “The end of the conflict will come only when the Arab world recognizes the innate right of the Jewish people to establish an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. And that recognition has not yet come.”

It was a theme taken up later by Mr. Netanyahu as well.

A Zionist Vision

Mr. Sharon was born Ariel Scheinerman on Feb. 27, 1928, on a semicollective farm, or moshav, named Kfar Malal, about 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. His parents, Samuel Scheinerman and the former Vera Schneirov, had emigrated from Russia. His mother, from a wealthy Belarussian family, was forced to interrupt her studies in medicine by the Russian Revolution. His father was a Zionist youth leader and agronomy student in Russia and a farmer in Palestine.

The isolation and mistrust of others that characterized Mr. Sharon’s relationships throughout his life had familial roots. His parents, who brought him up to treasure classical music and Russian literature, disdained their fellow moshav dwellers as unlettered and uncouth. Theirs was the only farm on the moshav with a fence around it.

In his autobiography, Mr. Sharon described his father as cantankerous and stingy with love. As a child, he reported, he felt lonely. Known from boyhood by the nickname Arik, Mr. Sharon began his military career in the Gadna, a paramilitary high school organization.

After graduation and a special course, he became a Gadna instructor at an agricultural school. His own instructor, Micah Almog, told biographers that even then Mr. Sharon refused to follow any script given to him and insisted on teaching his own way. He also joined the Haganah, the main underground Zionist fighting brigade, which became the Israel Defense Forces after independence.

In 1947, Mr. Sharon worked for the Haganah in the vast, flat stretch north of Tel Aviv that is called the Sharon Plain. It was from there that he took his new Israeli family name in the emerging Zionist tradition of Hebraizing the names brought from the diaspora. This was part of the plan to create a “new Jew” rooted in the homeland and no longer tied to the Old World.

At the height of the independence war, in May 1948, Mr. Sharon’s unit was sent to take part in the battle of Latrun against the Jordanian Army, at the foot of the hilly entrance to Jerusalem. It was a disastrous battle for the Zionists, and Mr. Sharon was badly wounded in the abdomen. Despite initial rescue efforts, he lay abandoned and bleeding for hours, and nearly died. It was an early and influential encounter with what he considered incompetence above him.

When he was 20, Mr. Sharon married a young Romanian immigrant named Margalit Zimmerman, who had been his student in Gadna and who went by the nickname Gali. After the 1948 war, he remained in the army and served in a number of posts around the country. In 1952, he took a leave from the army, and the couple moved to Jerusalem, where Mr. Sharon began Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University and his wife became a psychiatric nurse.

A Reputation for Boldness

Mr. Sharon had already earned a reputation as an effective battalion commander who believed that Israel had been timid in the face of Arab border provocation. Many of his superiors were wary of him, but others, including David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding prime minister, admired his boldness.

In 1953, Mr. Sharon was asked to form and lead the first elite commando force for special operations behind enemy lines. It was named Unit 101, and although it operated as an independent unit for less than a year, it became legendary in Israel. The aim of the unit was to retaliate for cross-border raids, Arab violations of the 1949 armistice agreements and attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

The unit’s first major operation came in October 1953, after an Israeli woman and her two children were murdered while sleeping in their home in the town of Yehud. Mr. Sharon led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian town of Qibya, which was said to be harboring Palestinian guerrillas.

The battle of Qibya, in which 69 people were killed, more than half of them women and children, and 45 houses were demolished, brought Israel its first condemnation by the United Nations Security Council and became a Palestinian rallying cry for a generation.

A furor erupted in Israel over the civilian deaths, but the government did not to investigate and covered up for the commando unit by saying that no Israeli soldiers had been involved. The raid, Ben-Gurion said at the time, must have been by people around Jerusalem, “refugees from Arab countries and survivors of Nazi concentration camps, who had suffered terribly at the hands of their tormentors and had shown great restraint until now.”

Unit 101 cultivated a sense among its members of being above rules and able to operate under the most severe conditions, an attitude that later permeated all elite Israeli military units.

In the 1956 Sinai campaign, Mr. Sharon commanded a paratroop brigade and violated orders by driving his men deep into Sinai to the Mitla Pass, where they were ambushed by Egyptian forces and sustained dozens of deaths, with scores of soldiers wounded. He had been unaware of a deal among Britain, France and Israel regarding the Mitla Pass. He was not shy with his complaints or sense of betrayal, and when the war ended his career suffered.

It was a period of personal loss as well. In May 1962, his wife, Gali, was killed when the car she was driving veered out of its lane and was hit by a truck. Mr. Sharon later married Gali’s younger sister, Lily, who had followed her to Israel. Lily became a mother to his son Gur, and together she and Mr. Sharon had two more sons, Omri and Gilad.

In 1964, Mr. Sharon’s flagging military career was revived by Mr. Rabin, then the chief of staff, who made him chief of the northern command. When the 1967 war broke out in June, Mr. Sharon was sent south to his old command area and played a crucial role on the Egyptian front.

When the war ended in a stunning victory for Israel — which had tripled its land mass and defeated the combined armies of Jordan, Syria and Egypt — Mr. Sharon felt a euphoria nearly unmatched in his life, he wrote in his autobiography.

Personal tragedy struck again soon. In October 1967, Gur, 11, his eldest son, was playing with friends with an old hunting rifle, stuffing it with gunpowder. A neighbor boy playfully aimed it at Gur’s head and pulled the trigger. Mr. Sharon, who was alone in the house at the time, ran out at the sound of the blast, scooped his son off the ground and flagged down a passing car to go to a hospital. The boy died en route.

His wife, Lily, remained Mr. Sharon’s fiercely loyal companion until her death from cancer in 2000. His two sons survive him, as do three grandchildren.

A Turn to Politics

Mr. Sharon’s relations with his military superiors remained tense as the country faced intermittent Palestinian guerrilla attacks in what became known as the War of Attrition. He was nearly thrown out of the army in 1969.

In 1970, as commander of the south, Mr. Sharon crushed Palestinian guerrilla units in the Gaza Strip. He bulldozed homes and groves, imposed collective punishment, set up intelligence units of Israelis who could pass for Palestinians and established the first Jewish settlements to hamper travel and communication of Palestinians.

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