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Obituary: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dead At 85

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a meeting in Jerusalem in February 2005. He suffered a massive stroke in January 2006.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attends a meeting in Jerusalem in February 2005. He suffered a massive stroke in January 2006.
By RFE/RL
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has died at the age of 85. He passed away on January 11 after spending the past eight years in a coma following a massive stroke.

Sharon was a politician both idealized and demonized.

For many Israelis, the general-turned-prime minister was a man of war who in later years evolved into a pragmatic politician -- a leader, they believed, who could deliver peace without compromising Israel's security.

For George W. Bush, he was "a man of peace," a view the then-U.S. president voiced in January 2006, as Sharon lay gravely ill in hospital following a massive stroke.

"He's a good man, a strong man, a man who cared deeply about the security of the Israeli people, and a man who had a vision for peace," Bush said.

But to Palestinians, Sharon was "the butcher," blamed for masterminding the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. He was also "the bulldozer," who demolished their homes and presided over the construction of a security wall around the West Bank, erected to prevent Palestinian attacks.

Hero, Or 'Butcher'?

Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001 after a landslide victory against Ehud Barak. It was the peak of a political career spanning some 30 years in which he held several cabinet posts, including the foreign and defense portfolios.

Born in British Palestine on February 28, 1928, into a family of Belarusian Jews, Sharon had a military career that spanned 25 years and saw him rise through the ranks to become one of Israel's most famous generals. He served in all the Israeli-Arab conflicts and he was widely regarded as a military hero determined to protect the country's interests.

Israeli political analyst Bernard Susser, speaking shortly after Sharon fell into a coma in January 2006, described the former prime minister as having been the driving force behind virtually every political and military move in Israel.

"That begins already in the '50s and the early '60s and during [the period of former Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion is famous for having said about Sharon that he doesn't stop at red lights," Susser said.

"This is particularly evident in the Lebanese war, where he [as defense minister] had a different agenda than what he told the cabinet and [Prime Minister] Menachem Begin specifically, and he carried it out -- actually brilliantly, but tragically at the end."

That invasion of Lebanon stopped the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from using Lebanon for attacks against Israel. But hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were killed by Lebanese Christian militia. Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister in 1983 after an Israeli tribunal found him indirectly responsible for the killings.

For Palestinians, he remained culpable for the massacres. In 2002, survivors of the atrocities started legal proceedings against Sharon in Belgium. The case was later dropped after the International Court of Justice ruled that past and present government leaders could not be tried for war crimes by a foreign country.

'To Try To Reach Peace'

Sharon will also be remembered for his September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a contested site revered by both Jews and Muslims. The visit by Sharon, who was then an opposition leader, was seen by many Palestinians as a provocation that sparked the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

But it was a dramatic move in his final year in office that perhaps will be considered one of Sharon's main political legacies.

Sharon was a long-standing champion of the settlement movement. But it was he who, in 2005, decided to withdraw from settlements in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, ending decades of Israeli military control. That major change of heart prompted a revolt in his Likud party, and Sharon left Likud the same year, setting up the centrist Kadima Party.

Analyst Susser said it was not clear what caused the sea change in Sharon's world view. "We may never know. I could speculate [that] it would be that Sharon wanted as an old man -- then 75 or so -- to leave his historical mark on the country and on the Middle East," he said. "He knew that he had a short time left, and he wanted his heritage to be establishing final, definitive borders to Israel and even establishing a different form of government that went more in the direction of a presidential system, rather than parliamentary system."

Just weeks after Sharon suffered his debilitating stroke, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas won elections in Gaza. A year later, Hamas took full control of the territory after routing the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. And at the end of 2008, Israel fought its way back into Gaza in an operation, Cast Lead, that it said was a response to rocket attacks from the territory.

Those developments made many Israelis wonder if Sharon's Gaza withdrawal had been a mistake.

Sharon once told an interviewer: "I have one thing that I would like to do: to try to reach peace."

The years since he fell into a coma have brought tumultuous change across the Middle East -- from the Arab Spring uprisings to the protracted and bloody civil war in Syria. But despite a fresh, U.S.-led push this past year to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that peace seems as elusive as ever.

This obituary was compiled by Golnaz Esfandiari, Charles Recknagel, and Kathleen Moore

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