General and politician

General and politician

Born: February 26, 1928; Died: January 11, 2014

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ARIEL Sharon, Israel's 11th Prime Minister, who has died in a Tel Aviv hospital aged 85, was a constant and turbulent presence in Israel's military and political life throughout the history of the state, from its foundation in 1948 until the stroke that incapacitated him in January 2006. He was the last of the 1948 generation of Israeli leaders to play an active role in politics.

Denounced as a war criminal and acclaimed as a masterly military and political tactician, Mr Sharon was compared with Slobodan Milosevic and Charles de Gaulle. He elicited fervent admiration from his supporters and venom from his enemies. Many hailed him as one of the great generals of the 20th century. But one former Israeli chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, condemned him as "unbalanced, adventurous, dangerous, undisciplined". And Golda Meir, one of his predecessors as Prime Minister, called him a danger to democracy.

Ariel Scheinermann (like many Israelis, he later Hebraised his surname) was born in 1928 at Kfar Malal, a moshav (co-operative village) on the central coastal plain of British mandatory Palestine to parents who had immigrated from what is now Belarus. His outlook was formed by his youthful immersion in the Labour Zionist movement. Although he later led three different right-wing parties in Israel, those values, in particular the duty to serve the nation, remained at the heart of his thinking throughout his life. He served as a teenager in the underground Zionist militia, the Haganah, and distinguished himself as a junior officer in the Israeli Army in Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

As head of a commando unit in 1953, Mr Sharon led a reprisal raid on the Jordanian border village of Kibye that left 69 civilians dead, half of them women and children. Moshe Sharett, then Israel's Foreign Minister, declared the raid had exposed Israel before the world "as a gang of bloodsuckers, capable of mass murder". Yet when Mr Sharett himself became Prime Minister shortly afterwards, he proved incapable of restraining the insubordinate young officer. In 1955, Mr Sharon led an Israeli raid on Egyptian-held Gaza that left 38 Egyptians and eight Israelis dead. This was the fuse that ignited the Suez war a year later.

In that war, in which Israel was joined by Britain and France in an invasion of Egypt, Mr Sharon commanded paratroopers in a costly drop on the Mitla Pass in Sinai; it was Israel's worst moment in that war, but Mr Sharon's military career survived these episodes. In 1957 he was sent for a year to the Staff College at Camberwell. During the 1960s he served in a succession of senior positions in the Israeli Army, though the office of chief of staff, which he coveted, eluded him.

When his armoured division smashed through Egyptian lines in Sinai in the Six-Day War of 1967, Mr Sharon won plaudits from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, though ugly stories later surfaced about rough handling of Arab prisoners. As commander on Israel's southern front in the early 1970s, he supervised the ruthless repression of Arab resistance in the occupied Gaza strip. In 1972, he retired from military service and began to plan a second career in politics.

What was perhaps Mr Sharon's greatest moment came during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. After Israel was caught unawares by surprise simultaneous attacks by Egypt and Syria, Mr Sharon was recalled by Ms Meir. He wrote his own orders and led the Israeli counter-attack across the Suez Canal that turned the tide of the war. It was a brilliant military victory but came close to triggering a Third World War.

Ms Meir's successor as Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had a wary respect for Mr Sharon and employed him as a consultant on counter- terrorism. Israel's first right-wing Prime Minister, Menahem Begin, appointed him Defence Minister in 1981, but lived to regret the choice.

In June 1982, Mr Sharon masterminded the invasion of Lebanon with a view to smashing the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure there, bamboozling and bulldozing the Israeli Cabinet into endorsing his strategy. The attempt to create a New Order in Lebanon embroiled Israel in a two-decade-long military and political fiasco. The massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militias provoked worldwide outrage. It led 400,000 Israelis to protest in Tel Aviv and forced Mr Begin to agree to the establishment of a judicial commission of inquiry. Its report in 1983 was severely critical of Mr Sharon who was declared unfit to retain office as Defence Minister and, very reluctantly, he resigned.

He did not, however, disappear from political life. His personal popularity led to his retention in the government. As a minister in the administrations of Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, he served as arch-exponent of the doctrine of Greater Israel, steering government money and support to the movement for Israeli settlement in the territories occupied since 1967.

Following the resignation of Mr Netanyahu in 1999, he became leader of the right-wing Likud Party. In this post, as in his career in general, he exhibited guile, determination, and staying-power that confounded his antagonists. In September 2000, he visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a holy place to both Muslims and Jews, to deliver what he called his "message of peace". The visit precipitated the outbreak of the second intifada which destroyed what remained of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process of the previous decade.

In February 2001, he was elected Prime Minister by a landslide popular vote. During his five years in office, he presided over a ferocious campaign of counter-attacks against Palestinians in the occupied territories. He sought to root out terrorism and reluctantly agreed to the construction of a defensive wall separating Israel (and Israeli settlements) from the Palestinian West Bank.

Yet, in his final years in power, he adjusted his thinking and came to accept the necessity for ending Israeli colonial-style rule over the Palestinians. Against bitter opposition within his own party, he pushed through the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Faced with continued hostility within the Likud, he announced the formation of a new party, Kadima, which he hoped to lead to victory in a General Election in early 2006. But, shortly before the election, he was incapacitated by a stroke and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. A macabre coda to a life outstanding for its energy and activity, his last eight years were passed in unconsciousness, attached to support systems in a hospital bed.

Mr Sharon's private life was darkened by personal tragedies. His first wife Margalit, whom he married in 1953, was killed in a road accident in 1962. The following year he married her sister Lily. She died in 2000. His only son by his first marriage was killed in a shotgun accident in 1967. Towards the end of his career, Mr Sharon's reputation was clouded by allegations of shady financial dealing that involved his two younger sons by his second marriage, one of whom served time in prison.

Despite his tempestuous and combative political style, Mr Sharon could manifest considerable personal charm in private meetings. He maintained a long personal friendship with his political opponent Shimon Peres, now Israeli President. In his faults and his virtues, Mr Sharon exhibited many of the characteristic traits often attributed to the "sabra" generation of native-born Israelis: directness, rude energy, impulsiveness, physical bravery, readiness to sacrifice means to ends, and commitment to the national cause. They felt at home with him and will feel bereft at his death.