Former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon dead at 85

Then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pauses during a session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, on Feb. 16, 2005.
Then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pauses during a session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, on Feb. 16, 2005. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pariah and wary peacemaker, warrior and wily politician, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s life story straddled his nation’s half-century struggle to forge a foothold in the modern Middle East.

He fought in four of Israel’s wars, and was architect of a fifth — the bitter 1982 invasion of Lebanon that sent him into the political wilderness for years. He served in three political parties and founded a fourth — “Kadima,” Hebrew for Forward — which rose to power and then diminished as he lay in a coma.

He had been stricken by a massive stroke in January 2006 that sidelined him from national life until his death Saturday at age 85 at Israel’s Tel HaShomer Hospital outside Tel Aviv.

He never won a Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps because he never actually embraced a peace partner. Rather, Sharon forged a controversial, go-it-alone approach to peacemaking that Israelis described as “creating facts on the ground.”

He built Jewish homes in occupied territory to secure lands. He launched retaliatory, eye-for-an-eye strikes to confront terrorism.

And, in the last years of his political life, he walled off portions of the West Bank and bulldozed Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip — with little to no consultation with Palestinian leaders — in what he cast as a strategic withdrawal.

“I am among those who believe that it is possible to reach a fair compromise and coexistence in good neighborly relations between Jews and Arabs,” he said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2005, months before he was felled by a stroke. “However, I must emphasize one fact: There will be no compromise on the right of the state of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, with defensible borders, in full security and without threats and terror.”

A burly, 5-foot-6-inch tall man with a soldier’s swagger in his youth, he turned into a jowly junk-food addict in his later years. His weight ballooned over 300 pounds, according to Israel Radio. He was a formidable force barreling between meetings amid a phalanx of bodyguards.

Ariel is Hebrew for “Lion of God” and Sharon, who was known by his nickname “Arik,” emerged in the early years of Israeli history as a heroic soldier, thanks to a military career that spanned four decades. The son of a Russian emigré, he was born in British Mandate Palestine on Feb. 27, 1928, in a farming community called Kfar Malal.

He joined the pre-independence Haganah movement at 14 in 1942, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces, in which he would rise to the rank of major general.

He was an infantry commander in the 1948 War of Independence, founder of a crack commando unit that led retaliatory raids against Arab enemies in the early years of statehood, and a tank commander in the 1967 Six-Day War.

He retired from the army in 1972, but was mobilized for the 1973 Yom Kippur war to command an armored division that shattered Egyptian lines in the Sinai Desert and charged across the Suez Canal — a lightning move that some historians credit as setting the stage for the 1978 peace treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Sharon’s political mentor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

So close were the two men that Begin made Sharon his agriculture minister in 1977, then elevated him to defense minister in 1981 and led to his plotting the invasion of Lebanon. That offensive war was meant to drive Palestinian guerrillas from Israel’s northern border, but the man known as The Bulldozer kept charging — straight for Beirut.

Sharon’s standing soured after the September 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps. The killings were carried out by Lebanon’s Christian Phalange militia, but Sharon, as defense minister, was found personally responsible if not knowledgeable about the atrocities.

Palestinians and other Arabs across the Middle East blamed him personally for the butchery.

Thus came the years of ignominy. A popular 1980s Israeli rock anthem — “Doesn’t Stop on Red” — never mentioned his name but ridiculed the disgraced leader as “the people’s hero” on state-run radio.

Now a bit player in Israeli politics, he was relegated to the role of a backbencher in Israel’s Knesset. To cleanse his tarnished reputation, he filed a libel lawsuit against Time magazine, which blamed him explicitly for the massacre. A jury found defamation and falsehood, but no malice — denying him the $50 million in compensatory damages he had sought.

But he never disappeared from politics. He served as minister of industry and trade and then housing and construction from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s, roles that let him find jobs and housing for waves of immigrants, notably those from the collapsed Soviet Union — and win the loyalty of a new generation of hawkish Israelis.

Once again, The Bulldozer mowed under olive tree orchards and West Bank hillsides to expand Jewish settlements, harkening back to 1970s tactics when he sent Israeli armor to Gaza City to mow under rows of cramped refugee-camp housing, and better rout anti-Israeli fighters, the “fedayeen.”

As leader of the opposition Likud Party, he was a fierce opponent of his rival Labor Party’s peace treaty with Yasser Arafat, and an outspoken opponent of the Oslo Agreement because, he said, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization had blood on his hands.

The two men had demonized each other for years. Arafat had already stumbled in his leadership of the peace process in the late ’90s when Sharon handed him a new cause: Sharon led some hawkish followers onto the Temple Mount in old Jerusalem in September 2000, a raw display intended to signal Jewish sovereignty over the place Muslims call Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. It uncorked years of Palestinian frustration with a ferocity that was far greater than the first Palestinian Uprising, or “intifada” — bloodshed that sparked a political crisis in Israel.

As the Labor Party government collapsed, Sharon dusted off his old warrior image, and campaigned on a pledge to crush a grisly wave of suicide and bus bombings. His political rehabilitation complete, he was elected prime minister in 2001 by the largest margin in Israel’s history — and reelected in 2003.

By then he had isolated his archenemy Arafat in a Ramallah compound, this time sending bulldozers to turn portions of it to rubble, ridiculing the Palestinian leader’s self-promotion as president of an illusory state called Palestine.

It was a powerful symbol of the Palestinian leader’s impotence. Arafat was 75 when he died in November 2004, exiled once again, in a military hospital in Paris.

In the Holy Land, Sharon, then 76, grew stronger. He had stared down international criticism to champion a massive cement and barbed-wire security wall and garnered sufficient support at home for the controversial withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 — in defiance of the religious settlement movement that had earlier celebrated him as Arik, King of Israel.

And he planned more withdrawals. At the time of his first stroke, Dec. 18, 2005, he had left his own Likud Party. Its platform and ideology were at odds with his notion of more unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank — a reversal of the facts on the ground he created decades earlier.

Sharon lived his entire life in Israel, studied history at Hebrew University, military tactics at Britain’s Staff College and got a law degree from Tel Aviv University.

He was one of the last living members of the generation of founding fathers of Israel who were there at the nation’s creation in 1948 and then rose to prominence in national and foreign policy.

Sometime rival, sometime ally Shimon Peres, the 90-year-old former Labor Party prime minister, is Israel’s ninth president. Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir left the national stage after he was ousted in the 1992 elections and died at age 96 in June 2012.

A widower, Sharon was married twice — first to Margolit, who died in a 1961 car crash, then to her sister Lili, who died in 2000 of cancer. A son by Margolit died as a boy in a shooting accident. He is survived by two sons by Lili, Omri and Gilad, who briefly moved him to the family’s Sycamore Ranch in November 2010 before returning him to the hospital where he died.

Carol Rosenberg began reporting in the Middle East in 1987. She was The Miami Herald’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 1990-94, and has returned through the years on assignment.

Related stories from Miami Herald