Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Dies at 85

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gives a press conference regarding his political plans in his office Nov. 21, 2005, in Jerusalem. (Photo: David Silverman, Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gives a press conference regarding his political plans in his office Nov. 21, 2005, in Jerusalem. (Photo: David Silverman, Getty Images)

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, one of his nation’s most controversial and iconic leaders for a half-century — on and off the battlefield — died Saturday at the age of 85, of complications from a stroke eight years ago.

The death of Sharon, known by his nickname “Arik” to generations of Israelis, ends a tumultuous career that spanned the heights and depths of public life and Israeli history.

Sharon was a military leader who led Israeli troops against Arab armies in every war from independence in 1948 until his stroke 58 years later. He was defense minister in 1982, when Israel attacked Lebanon in an attempt to oust the Palestinian Liberation Organization and reduce Syria’s stranglehold over Lebanon. Sharon was forced to resign after Lebanese Christian militias sent into the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps to weed out the PLO murdered hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

A longtime passionate advocate of Israeli settlement of land he helped conquer from Jordan and Egypt, which Palestinians seek for a state,he forced Jewish settlers to leave Gaza in 2005, ending 38 years of military governance.

“Sharon combined brilliance and colossal failure” during his long and controversial career, said Edward Walker, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1998 to 2000 and former president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

To Palestinians Sharon was not a hero, but a brutal operator who sought for years to destroy Palestinian Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat and eventually succeeded, said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee. Arafat died in 2004. The cause of death is disputed. His wife claims he was poisoned with radioactive polonium by Israel.

“To us he represents violence, militarism, preemptive moves, undermining the political process — and a long history of pain,” Ashrawi said.

Sharon had a first, small stroke in December 2005 and was put on blood thinners before experiencing a severe brain hemorrhageJan. 4, 2006.

After spending months in the Jerusalem hospital where he was initially treated, Sharon was transferred to the long-term care facility in Tel Hashomer, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

A hulking man who at times weighed more than 300 pounds, Sharon was a gigantic presence in Israel. He was dubbed “The Bulldozer” by Israeli media because of his former policy of clearing Palestinians from disputed land, his contempt for his critics and his ability to get things done.

After his stroke, Sharon was succeeded as prime minister by Ehud Olmert, his successor as leader of the centrist Kadima party. Sharon had rattled Israeli political circles by leaving the conservative Likud faction to form Kadima — marking one of the many unexpected twists and turns in his mercurial career.

Sharon, in his final years, had forged a close working relationship with President George W. Bush, who called Sharon a “man of peace” during a tough Israeli crackdown on Palestinian militants in 2002.

Michal Peri, a Jewish Jerusalemite, praised Sharon “for changing course” in mid-career.

“He was a fascinating man,” Peri, a teacher, said while doing her pre-sabbath shopping on Friday. “He was a war hero and general who established settlements but, when he felt it would help the nation, dismantled the settlements in Gaza. Sharon was a hard-core hawk, yet he transformed himself and, in the process, the country.”

Larry Derfner, a blogger who says Israel must relinquish all land it captured in war to the Palestinians, said Sharon was “a ruthless warrior and a gobbler of Palestinian land. Yet the last big thing he did in his career – remove Israeli settlements from Gaza – was to retreat from the very land he helped Israel conquer.”

The so-called disengagement “was a wrenching, cataclysmic event for Israel,” that might have been repeated in parts of the West Bank had Sharon not been sidelined by a stroke, Derfner said.

His withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank was aimed at creating the outlines of a Palestinian state and improving security for Israelis tired of decades of conflict.

To Palestinians, the unilateral disengagement was less about peace than it was about ridding Israel of “the security threat and the demographic threat (Sharon) saw in Gaza,” Ashrawi said.

“At the time we said any kind of withdrawal had to be done as part of negotiations, so there would be a handover,” she said. “But to Sharon everything was unilateral.”

The wisdom of his disengagement policy has proved unclear, as demonstrated by Israel’s periodic skirmishes with Hamas-backed militants in Gaza and ongoing tensions with Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew in 2000.

“Clearly this is a man who had second thoughts in the later years of his life,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign affairs analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

“If the peace process is successful, he will be remembered as an important catalyst for peace,” Carpenter said. “If it’s not successful, he’ll be remembered more for the hard-line policies he adopted earlier in his career.”

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Bill Nichols and Doug Stanglin