Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dies at 85
Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state after a massive stroke, was a monumental figure in Israel's modern history who epitomized the country's warrior past even as he sought to become the architect of a peaceful future.
His death, at 85, was confirmed by a senior official in the Israeli prime minister's office and by Dr. Shlomo Noy of the Shedba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer near Tel Aviv, where Mr. Sharon had spent his last years.
As a soldier, defense minister, and prime minister, Mr. Sharon fought or commanded forces in every one of Israel's military conflicts for more than half a century, beginning with its 1948 independence war, and was author of the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a politician, he built the infrastructure of the country's settlement campaign in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, then stunned friend and foe alike by dismantling part of the project.
Through it all, he commanded center stage, insisting at times that he alone knew what was best for Israel and persevering over six decades to emerge as prime minister in 2001, after countless humiliations that would have long killed off the careers of less determined men. At the time of his stroke in 2006, he was in the process of seeking to extend his time in office by forging a new centrist political movement based on his popularity.
His death was greeted with the same strong feelings he evoked in life. Israelis called him a war hero. His enemies called him a war criminal.
President Obama remembered Mr. Sharon as "a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a rival and critic of Mr. Sharon, said: "His memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation."
The Palestinians distributed candy and prayed for divine punishment.
The man who chose the title Warrior for his autobiography was for much of his career the darling of the Israeli right, which chanted "Arik, King of Israel!" invoking his nickname and comparing him to the legendary biblical King David.
For decades, he used that support to undermine governments of both the rival Labor and his own Likud parties. But in later years, as he first organized Israel's withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and made plans for pullbacks from parts of the West Bank, the right denounced him.
The more dovish left, which had long feared and despised him, had begun to reevaluate his motives and policies and accord him a grudging respect. Meanwhile, for moderates on both sides of Israel's bitter political divide, wary and exhausted after years of conflict and false dawns, Mr. Sharon came to embody the country's eternal quest for security. While he did not always share their hopes, he understood and spoke to their fears.
Critics said Mr. Sharon suffered from a Napoleon complex and consciously encouraged a cult of personality that posed a threat to democracy. He insisted that he had never wavered from his primary principle of unswerving devotion to the state and to the Jewish people. But he said he had come to recognize that the view from the prime minister's office was like the verse of a popular Israeli song: There are "some things you can see from here that you can't see from there."
Ariel Scheinermann was born Feb. 27, 1928, in Palestine, then under British mandatory rule, in a cooperative farming village. In his memoirs, he wrote that he often thought back to "working with my father on that arid slope of land, walking behind him to plant the seeds in the earth he had turned with his hoe. When I felt too exhausted to go on, he would stop for a moment to look backwards, to see how much we had already done. And that would always give me heart."
He took the Hebrew name for plain (as in the Israeli coastal plain of Sharon) and as a teen joined the Haganah, the main Jewish underground movement opposed to British rule. During Israel's war of independence, he commanded an infantry unit and was wounded during the battle to secure the road to besieged Jerusalem.
Even David Ben-Gurion, founding patriarch of the Jewish state, recognized the younger man's potential - and weaknesses. "An original, visionary young man," he wrote of Mr. Sharon in his diary in 1960. "Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth and to distance himself from gossip, he would be an exceptional military leader."
Yet many Israelis trusted him because of his long-standing experience as a soldier and strategist and because they believed he would move only as far and as fast as he felt necessary.
He also knew personal tragedy. His first wife, Margalit, died in a car accident in 1962, and their son, Gur, died in a shooting accident five years later.
Soon after her death, Mr. Sharon wed her younger sister, Lily, and they were married until her death of cancer in 2000. Survivors include two sons from his second marriage, Gilad and Omri, and six grandchildren.
His body was to lie in state at the parliament on Sunday before he is laid to rest at his ranch in southern Israel on Monday, Israeli media reported.
Vice President Biden will lead the U.S. delegation.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.