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Ariel Sharon, Whose Life And Career Shaped Israeli History, Dies

Ariel Sharon, Whose Life And Career Shaped Israeli History, Dies

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a towering figure in the history of Israel as a soldier and politician, died on Saturday. He was 85.

His death was announced by Shlomo Noy, the director of Sheba Medical Center where Sharon was being treated. Sharon had been in a coma since he suffered a massive stroke in January 2006 during the last Israeli election campaign, in which he was assured of re-election.

Sharon's career spanned the birth of the nation and most of the essential turning points in its history. Israelis had a love-hate relationship with Sharon that was beginning to soften only shortly before his death.

"His career was defined by doing the dirty work that was necessary for the state of Israel both to be born and to survive," said Mark LeVine, professor of contemporary Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine.

Sharon's actions as both a soldier and a politician reflected the innermost fears and desires of many Israelis about the nation they longed to establish in what was essentially a hostile environment, LeVine said.

"They knew that in order for Israel to succeed and for Zionism to succeed, it involved necessarily a conflict with the indigenous population of the country that was never going to be neat or pleasant," LeVine said. "He, unlike most Israelis, was not afraid to say that, was not afraid to act upon it. And in so doing, he challenged many Israelis who tried to live a much more modern, normal life that was free from the kind of powerful nationalistic impulses that he represented."

A Life Steeped In Jewish Self-Defense

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 in what was then Palestine under the British mandate. His parents, Shmuel and Devorah Scheinerman, had been Jewish immigrants from Russia after World War I.

It was a hostile world the Scheinermans settled into, and Sharon learned about Jewish self-defense from an early age. He joined a Jewish paramilitary organization at age 14. He would go on to a lengthy military career spanning five Israeli wars, starting with its war for independence in 1948, in which he was seriously wounded.

Sharon's military career was marked by controversy, some say even insubordination.

He was instrumental in forming the elite commando force, Unit 101, that mounted counterterrorist operations against Palestinians in the 1950s. He was called reckless, with his own troops and with Palestinian civilians. But his operations in the 1967 and 1973 wars won praise.

In 1973 he went into politics when it became clear that he would never be made chief of staff of the Israeli army. He was a founding member of the Likud, the right-wing party whose leader, Menachem Begin, was elected prime minister in 1977.

Sharon was made a government minister, and it was then that he became associated with an issue that would stick to him for the rest of his life — the expansion of Jewish settlements in territories seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.

"He parlayed that job into the dominant figure in the promotion of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza," said Samuel Lewis, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Sharon "relentlessly pursued his own scheme for building a network of settlements across the West Bank, to make it impossible ever to give the territory back to any Arab leadership."

Sharon confirmed his intentions a few years later when he said about the Israeli presence in the West Bank, "When it comes to security, we will stay there forever."

Invasion Of Lebanon, Regret Over Its Bloody End

Sharon became defense minister in 1981, and from the moment he took that post, it appeared that he was planning Israel's next war. The Palestinians in Lebanon, to Israel's north, were threatening Israeli territory, and Sharon wanted to end it.

In 1982, he led the invasion of Lebanon. He declared that the operation was simply to secure Israel's northern border, but Lewis says Sharon was not honest about his ultimate goals.

"We were being told what they were doing by Begin, and actually Sharon was doing something quite different and not telling Begin the truth," said Lewis, the U.S. ambassador at the time. Begin's "own credibility was plummeting with Ronald Reagan because he was really, I think, misled as to what Sharon's armies were actually up to."

Soon Israeli forces pressed all the way to Beirut and set siege to the Lebanese capital. In an interview in 1982 with a British journalist, Sharon defended the operation.

"I think we have shown here in this operation more humanity than in any operation that has been done by the British, any war as I remember from the history," Sharon said.

But the Lebanon war ended with one of the bloodiest incidents in the contemporary history of the Middle East. Lebanese Christian forces, allies of Israel, attacked the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut and massacred hundreds of Palestinians, including women and children, while Israeli officers looked on.

Sharon proclaimed his innocence, but a commission of inquiry in Israel later found him indirectly responsible and prohibited him from ever again holding the post of defense minister.

In a 1983 interview with NPR, Sharon expressed regret about the massacre.

"In retrospect, it was a mistake," he said. "Then, we did not know anything. We even did not think that that could have happened.

"If we would have known that could happen, we would never have let them in," he said, referring to the Lebanese Christian militia.

"I was punished for that," Sharon said, "and I paid for that."

In the same interview, Sharon was asked whether he wanted someday to be Israel's prime minister. "I believe that in the future, I will try," Sharon answered, adding with a smile, "but I would like to tell you that maybe my main secret weapon is that I am much less ambitious than generally described."

Prime Ministerial Ambitions, And The Second Intifada

After these events, Sharon found himself in the political wilderness. He did not play a prominent role again in politics until the late 1990s, when he returned to government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2000, he decided to challenge Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud in a bid late in life to fulfill his very real ambition to become prime minister.

It was then that he made a fateful visit to the Temple Mount, or what the Arabs call the Noble Sanctuary, the site in the Old City of Jerusalem of both Jewish and Muslim holy places.

"Our message today is peace," he said as he toured the Temple Mount surrounded by Israeli police to keep Arab protesters away. "What noise there is when an Israeli Jew goes to his most sacred place."

The next day, rioting broke out in Jerusalem. It would mark the start of the second Palestinian intifada. The conflict soon mushroomed into outright warfare between Palestinians and Israelis. It would carry Sharon to election victory in early 2001.

Sharon's victory was hailed by the right, but he was vilified by the left.

"He built a whole career out of the politics and the culture of hatred," said peace activist Amiram Goldblum in an interview with NPR at that time. "Everything that he looks upon is a battlefield where he has to conquer something or he has to fight someone and to show the other side that he's the winner."

True to his history and character, Sharon initially pursued a hard-line military solution to the Palestinian uprising, eventually ordering the Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank in the spring of 2002.

Those operations included confining Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his compound in Ramallah.

Searching For Peace, On His Own Terms

But Sharon began to see that he needed more than just military force to solve the problem of Palestinian aspirations and violence. He concluded that Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic if it continued the occupation of significant Palestinian territory.

So he decided to move unilaterally, and in August 2005, he ordered the withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza.

He also began construction of a barrier in and around the West Bank, which is still under construction.

In January 2006, Sharon suffered a stroke in the midst of an election campaign in which he abandoned the Likud to create a new political party, Kadima. The ideologues on his right could not stomach his decision to withdraw from Gaza, and they decided to reject him politically.

After the stroke, Ehud Olmert took over Kadima's leadership and ultimately became prime minister, serving until 2009.

In the last days before his stroke, Sharon created the impression that he was searching for a way to make peace with the Palestinians, but only on his terms.

"That reflected the realism and pragmatism, not the ideology," said Lewis, "because he was not a real ideologue at all. He was a tough military guy who believed in the security of the state of Israel."

After a long life filled with turmoil and violence, Sharon found himself in the unusual position of embodying the hopes of a majority of Israelis across the political spectrum who wanted an end to the apparently endless bloodletting with the Palestinians. He did not live to show the world whether he was capable of fulfilling those aspirations.

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Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.