Ariel Sharon, Larger-Than-Life Israeli Soldier Turned Prime Minister, Dies at 85

Right Wing Icon Had Been in Coma Since 2006 Stroke

‘King Arik’: Ariel Sharon shares a laugh during 2004 Knesset session. The iconic Israeli general-turned-politician suffered a catastrophic stroke while serving as premier two years later.
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‘King Arik’: Ariel Sharon shares a laugh during 2004 Knesset session. The iconic Israeli general-turned-politician suffered a catastrophic stroke while serving as premier two years later.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 11, 2014.
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During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Sharon led an attack on Egyptian troops in the Mitla Pass, violating direct orders, and lost 38 of his own men. His military career went into a long slump until 1964, when his friend and mentor Yitzhak Rabin became chief of staff and named Sharon to a series of senior command posts.

In 1969 Sharon was named chief of the Southern Command, a stepping stone to chief of staff. Faced with growing terrorism from Gaza, he initiated a draconian crackdown, bulldozing hundreds of homes in a crowded refugee camp to clear passages for Israeli armor. Once again he drew worldwide protest, cementing an international reputation as a symbol of supposed Israeli brutality.

In 1972, passed over for chief of staff, Sharon quit the army to enter politics, but returned a year later to command a reserve armored division in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This time he outdid himself: At the war’s height he led his tanks across the Suez Canal and proceeded to encircle Egypt’s vaunted Third Army, violating orders but arguably securing an Israeli victory. When the war ended with massive Israeli losses, the country’s military and political leaders were disgraced and Sharon was a national hero.

His personal life was as turbulent as his professional life. His first wife, Margalit, had been killed in an automobile accident in 1962, after nine years of marriage. He married her sister Lily a year later, and they had two sons. Another son from his first marriage, 11-year-old Gur, was killed 1967 while playing with a gun.

In 1972 he moved his family to a huge ranch in the Negev desert near Gaza, the Sycamore Farm, controversially purchased with the help of wealthy American admirers. Lily died of cancer in 2000. Sharon’s surviving sons stayed at the ranch and remained his closest confidantes until the end.

His political career was no less unconventional. He had shocked his labor movement friends in 1972 by joining the Likud, an alliance of right-wing opposition parties that he had helped to forge. He was elected to the Knesset in December 1973 as a Likud member, but quit in 1975 and went to work as a senior adviser to Rabin, who headed a left-wing Labor government.

A year later Sharon left again to seek a leadership position, first with Likud, then with Labor. Rejected by both, he formed his own political party, Shlomtzion. He hoped to create a post-ideological movement of young rebels, wooing such firebrands as Yossi Sarid of Labor and settler leader Hanan Porat, but ended up alone with a few cronies. Squeaking through the 1977 Knesset elections, he led his tiny faction into the newly triumphant Likud and became a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Four years later, in 1981, Begin named him minister of defense, traditionally the nation’s second-ranking post.

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