Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, the larger-than-life soldier and politician whose stormy, six-decade career helped to define the image and character of the Jewish state, has died at 85. He had been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke on January 4, 2006, while serving as prime minister.
A charismatic leader and a brilliant if headstrong tactician, Sharon spent his entire adult life in the Israeli public arena, beginning as a 20-year-old platoon commander in Israel’s 1948 war of independence. He played a central role in many of his country’s most critical episodes, winning acclaim and notoriety for his daring and brutal effectiveness. Renowned as a leading opponent of Israeli-Palestinian compromise, he ended his career with a dramatic reversal and directed the first Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory, transforming himself in the world’s eye from obstructionist to statesman.
At nearly every stage in his career, his actions drew accusations of recklessness, insubordination and disregard for human life, each time sidelining him, it seemed, for good. Each time, though, he bounced back stronger than ever. His endless ability to overcome obstacles, whether military, political or personal, won him the nickname “the Bulldozer.”
Sharon was born in February 1928 in Kfar Malal, a moshav or cooperative farming village north of Tel Aviv. His parents, Samuil and Vera Scheinerman, were Zionist activists from Byelorussia who fled the Soviet Union in 1922. In Israel they joined Mapai, the dominant labor party, but regularly feuded with neighbors and ended up ostracized in their own village, expelled from the party-run marketing coop and health clinic.
Young Ariel, while inheriting his parents’ stubborn independence, received a traditional labor upbringing: He joined a pioneer youth movement at 10 and enlisted at 14 in the Mapai-run Haganah underground militia, proceeding from there into the regular army.
Sharon first won notoriety in 1953, as commander of the Israeli army’s first special anti-terrorism detail, Unit 101. He led a series of retaliatory raids into the Jordanian-ruled West Bank that left dozens of civilians dead and drew massive international criticism. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, pressured to disband the unit, folded it into a paratroop brigade, which he then placed under Sharon’s command.