Tags: Israel | Ariel | Sharon | obit | Israel

'King of Israel,' Ariel Sharon, Dead at 85

Saturday, 11 Jan 2014 08:17 AM

By Jim Meyers and Martin Gould

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Ariel Sharon —  the military hero and prime minister who was among the most controversial figures in the history of Israel — has died, eight years after the massive stroke that left him comatose. He was 85.

He died Saturday at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, outside of Tel Aviv, where he has been cared for since 2006.

Over his long career Sharon served as Israel's 11th prime minister, headed several ministries including Defense, and rose to the rank of general in the Israeli army, seeing action in all four of Israel's major wars.

Reviled by Arabs over his hardline policies and viewed with a mixture of respect and suspicion by many Israelis, Sharon had been on life support at the hospital far from the public gaze.

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A state funeral is planned.

Sharon was born on Feb. 26, 1928, in Kfar Malal, then in the British Mandate of Palestine. His parents had emigrated from Russia.

"I was born on a farm," he said many year later. "My strength has nothing to do with political apparatus. I get my strength from nature, from flowers."

In 1942, at the age of 14, Sharon joined the Gadna, a paramilitary youth battalion, and later the Haganah, an underground paramilitary force.

He was a platoon commander in the Israeli military at the outset of the 1948 War of Independence, and rose swiftly up the ranks during the war.

In the 1956 Suez War, Sharon commanded a paratrooper brigade, and he headed Israel's most powerful armored division as a major general in the 1967 Six-Day War. His actions on the Sinai front brought Sharon international commendation by military strategists.

Sharon retired from military service in 1973, but was called back to active duty at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October of that year.

Sharon's bold maneuver in crossing the Suez Canal and encircling Egypt's Third Army was considered the key to Israel's ultimate victory and led the Israeli public to nickname him "The King of Israel" and "The Lion of God."

Crowds swarmed the streets singing a revised old Hebrew Song — "David: King of Israel" — replacing David with Sharon's nickname, "Arik: King of Israel."

Sharon, who received a law degree from the Tel Aviv branch of the Hebrew University, served as a special aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1970s, then as Secretary of Agriculture.

He used his position to encourage Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, doubling the number of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip during his tenure.

Following the 1981 elections, he was appointed Minister of Defense, the post he held during the 1982 Lebanon War.

In 1983, an Israeli state inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killing of hundreds of Palestinian men, women, and children at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

The slaughter took place after the Israeli army, which invaded Lebanon in 1982, allowed Israeli-backed Christian Phalangist militiamen to enter the camps. Sharon was forced to resign his post.

From 1983 to 1999, he served in successive governments as a Minister without Portfolio, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister of Housing Construction, Minister of National Infrastructure, and Foreign Minister.

On Sept. 28, 2000, Sharon — then head of the Likud Party — led more than 1,000 Israeli police officers to the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem, a Jewish holy site that also includes two of Islam's holiest sites, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. He declared that the complex would remain under perpetual Israeli control.

The provocative move torpedoed ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and led to the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada. But Sharon and his supporters claimed that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority had planned the uprising months before Sharon's visit.

Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001. Two years later, he announced his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state in the future.

"It is not in our interest to govern you," he told the Palestinians. "We would like you to govern yourselves in your own country.

"Abandon the path of terror and let us together stop the bloodshed," he pleaded. "Let us move forward together towards peace."

He ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, expelling nearly 10,000 settlers from 21 settlements in August 2005. Israeli soldiers formally left Gaza in September.

Critics of the withdrawal point to the territory's seizure two years later by Hamas Islamists opposed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and to intensive rocket fire from Gaza.

The withdrawal decision sparked bitter protests from members of the Likud Party. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quit the Cabinet in protest.

"Netanyahu is pressured easily, gets into a panic and loses his senses," said Sharon. "To run a country like Israel a leader needs to have reason and judgment and nerves of steel, two traits he does not have."

In November 2005, Sharon resigned as head of Likud to form a new party, Kadima, and his rival Netanyahu took over as leader of Likud.

Sharon was a fierce defender of Israel and the Jewish people.

"Israel may have the right to put others on trial, but certainly no-one has the right to put the Jewish people and the State of Israel on trial," he said.

But he recognized that Israel had to improve relations with its Arab neighbors.

"If we are to reach a situation of true peace, real peace, peace for generations, we will have to make painful concessions. Not in exchange for promises, but rather in exchange for peace," he said in 2003.

"If it turns out that we have someone to talk to, that they understand that peace is neither terrorism nor subversion against Israel, then I would definitely say that we will have to take steps that are painful for every Jew and painful for me personally," Sharon said.

Not everyone believed his conciliatory words. Ronald Reagan, in his autobiography, "An American Life," called Sharon "a bellicose man, who seemed to be chomping at the bit to start a war."

During his time as prime minister, Sharon piled on weight, causing doctors to warn him that he was putting his health at risk. His official car was said to be stacked with snacks, caviar, and vodka.

"I love life. I love all of it, and in fact I love food," he said.

He even joked about his weight, which ballooned to 250 pounds, although he was only 5 feet, 7 inches. When asked about fears for his safety, he shot back "There is no bullet-proof vest in my size."

Polls in November 2005 indicated that Sharon was likely to beat Netanyahu at the polls, but on Dec. 18, he suffered a mild stroke while heading to his ranch in the Negev Desert.

He left the hospital after two days, but on Jan. 4, 2006, suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage that left him comatose and on life support. His deputy Ehud Olmert formally succeeded him as prime minister in April.

Within months, Sharon was transferred to a long-term care unit at Sheba. Medical experts said his cognitive abilities were destroyed by the stroke and he was in a persistent vegetative state with little chance of regaining consciousness, though family members refused to allow them to turn off his life support.

"When he is awake, he looks at me and moves fingers when I ask him to," his son Gilad said in 2011. "He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly. Large, strong, self assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he's awake, he looks out with a penetrating stare. He hasn't lost a single pound; on the contrary, he's gained some."

When Sharon suffered from renal failure on New Year's Day, Israeli media reported that doctors were unlikely to take drastic measures to keep him alive.

In the end, he died peacefully. Raanan Gissin, a former senior aide to Sharon, said: "It's a very sad moment for people in Israel because Ariel Sharon was an icon in Israel."

Sharon was widowed twice. His first wife Margalit, with whom he had a son, Gur, died in a car accident in 1962, and Gur died in 1967 after a friend accidentally shot him with a rifle.

After Margalit's death, Sharon wed her younger sister Lily, and they had two sons, Omri and Gilad. Lily died in 2000.

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