Ariel Sharon dies at 85

One of the most consequential leaders of the 20th century is dead. Ariel Sharon, brilliant military commander and former prime minister of Israel, died 8 years after suffering a debilitating stroke. He was 85.

His tenure as prime minister was marked by his unilateral exit from Gaza and the withdrawal of some Israeli settlements. Some Americans viewed these actions as surprising, given his harsh rhetoric directed against Palestinians. But Sharon was always pragmatic when it came to achieving security for Israel and he believed that a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty was inevitable.

He was a legend as a military commander.

In 1973, Mr. Sharon felt drawn to politics. With help from American friends, he also bought a large farm in the Negev Desert - it remains the largest privately owned farm in the country - and talked about retirement from the military. But that October, a shocking invasion by Egypt and Syria, a war that Israel nearly lost, delayed his plans.

He pulled off his most extraordinary feat of combat when he waged a daring crossing of the Suez Canal behind Egyptian lines, a move often described as either brilliant or foolhardy, and a turning point in the war.

Mr. Sharon had been hit in the head by a shifting tank turret, and photographs of him with his head bandaged appeared in many newspapers and remain a symbol of that war. After that, Mr. Sharon did retire and helped engineer the birth of the Likud bloc, a political union between the Liberal Party and the more right-wing Herut Party of Menachem Begin.

Mr. Begin, who was in many ways more Polish than Israeli, admired Mr. Sharon for his gruffness, courage and energy, and as a native-born symbol of the emancipated Jew. Mr. Sharon won his first election to Parliament, on the Likud ticket, in December 1973. But he quickly found the confines of Parliament, with its wheeling and dealing and endless committee meetings, not to his liking. He fought with his political allies, grew impatient and thirsted for more decisive action.

In the spring, he led a group of Israelis into the West Bank near the city of Nablus and, using the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of Parliament, helped them establish an illegal settlement. He then quit Parliament and returned to the army. Mr. Rabin had become prime minister and brought Mr. Sharon into the prime minister's office as a special adviser. He held the job for about a year, and Mr. Sharon later wrote that this first exposure to central political power was extremely instructive.

A surprisingly good politician, Sharon abandoned Likud to form the more moderate Kadima party in 2005. He suffered a stroke in 2006 before the election that brought Kadima to power.

Sharon's imprint can still be felt today. His decision to sideline the PLO and their leader Mahmoud Abbas partly resulted in the rise of the even more militiant Hamas. The terrorists have yet to demonstrate any notion that peace talks would be fruitful and even if Sharon had noit suffered a stroke, it is doubtful that much progress toward a settlement could have been achieved.

But Ariel Sharon will not be judged by his dealings with the Palestinians. His leadership in war and peace marks him as one of Israel's most vital politicians and soldiers, It is difficult to imagine the modern state of Israel without him.

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