(Editor’s note: Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former Prime Minister, died Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, after spending the past eight years in a coma from which he never emerged. Thousands of Israelis lined up in front of the nation's parliament building in Jerusalem on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, to pay their last respects. WORLD published the following article about Sharon in 2006.)
Whether or not Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lived on after the major stroke he suffered on Jan. 4, Israeli media reported damage so substantial that one of the most remarkable political careers of recent decades would end—and with that, the road to Mideast peace takes a new turn.
Whether keeping vigil outside his Jerusalem hospital or praying at the Wailing Wall, Israelis widely accepted that the major bleeding to Mr. Sharon's brain overnight "effectively ended his political career," said International Christian Embassy Jerusalem spokesman David Parsons. "This comes in the midst of a heated election season for both Israelis and Palestinians and has brought great uncertainty to the country." Mr. Sharon—as one of the last remaining leaders of Israel's founding generation—considered it his legacy to draw the nation's final borders.
The life of Ariel Sharon was a novelist's dream. Born in 1928 to Russian immigrant parents in a farming community 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, at age 14 he began fighting the British who ruled what was and would be Israel. Mr. Sharon built his military reputation during Israel's wars against Arab states, becoming known for daring tactics and occasionally daring commanders to punish him when he refused to obey orders.
In 1973 Mr. Sharon led a sortie across the Suez Canal that helped turn the tide of a war that almost destroyed Israel. He helped to form the tough-minded Likud Party and gained high office, only to be run out in disgrace. He made a comeback as an ultra-hawk but last year gained the hatred of some hawks for his willingness to withdraw soldiers and settlers from Gaza. The man once forced to resign as defense minister (in 1983) for his role in attacks on Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon in the end was paving a way for Palestinian statehood.
Mr. Sharon, nicknamed "the Bulldozer," was never mellow like a Frank Sinatra song, but he could say with the singer, "I did it my way." And he made others see things his way: When George W. Bush was governor of Texas in 1998, he visited Israel and Mr. Sharon took him on a helicopter ride to show the tiny country's narrow boundaries. Mr. Bush got the point: "What struck me is the tiny distance between enemy lines and Israel's population centers. In Texas, some of our driveways are longer than that."
When Likud fell out of power Mr. Sharon spent time at his sheep farm in southern Israel, and although no one mistook the overweight Sharon for a slim shepherd David, Israel's voters turned to him in February 2001 and made him prime minister.
Three months after Mr. Sharon took office, Israeli warplanes bombed Palestinian territories for the first time since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. On March 27, 2002, suicide attacks killed 30 Israelis, and two days later Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, the most extensive in Palestinian territories since 1967. In June Israel began construction of the West Bank barrier.
Mr. Sharon was not amused in 2003 as Israel and the Palestinians danced around concerning a "roadmap" to peace, so in December he announced a unilateral plan to evacuate settlements. The following May, 60 percent of his own Likud Party rejected the disengagement plans, but the prime minister didn't give up: He formed an alliance with opposition Labor Party members that gave him a working cabinet majority to do it his way.
When the cabinet gave final approval to the evacuations last August, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned in protest. Mr. Sharon decided that he had had enough of Likud intra-party debates and in November set up a new party, Kadima, that quickly jumped to first place in Israeli polls. With elections planned for March 28, questions emerged after Mr. Sharon had a minor stroke Dec. 18. He was discharged two days later, then rushed to the hospital again Jan. 4 after suffering a massive stroke.
Mr. Sharon had also had a dramatic personal life. His first wife, Margalith, died in an automobile accident in 1962, and their one son, Gur, died at age 11 in 1967 after a friend apparently shot him while they were playing with one of Mr. Sharon's antique guns; Gur died in his father's lap.
Mr. Sharon married Margalith's younger sister, Lily, with whom he had two sons, Omri and Gil'ad. Lily Sharon died in 2000; the day before his father's major stroke last week, Omri resigned his seat in the Israeli parliament after pleading guilty to perjury and violating campaign finance laws.
Last week Mideast radicals danced on Mr. Sharon's grave while he still lived. "Allah is great and is able to exact revenge on this butcher," said Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Syrian-backed faction Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command: "We thank Allah for this gift he presented to us on this new year." But President Bush called Mr. Sharon "a man of courage and peace," and a Palestinian commentator on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network praised him as "the first Israeli leader who stopped claiming Israel had a right to all of the Palestinians' land."
Mr. Sharon's deputy premier, former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, took over formal leadership, but analysts question whether he can beat hard-line Likud leader Netanyahu or dovish Labor Party leader Amir Peretz in the March elections. (Ironically, had Mr. Netanyahu not resigned, he would probably be in immediate line to regain the prime minister's job that was his from 1996 to 1999.)
No one knew what the change in Israel's leadership would mean for its future. One immediate dispute is whether Palestinian residents of Jerusalem will be able to vote in the Palestinian parliamentary election scheduled for Jan. 25. Israel has threatened to say no, since it does not want to legitimize any Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. That step may give Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas an excuse to cancel a vote that his corrupt Fatah party might lose. But Israel might not mind a cancellation, since election victors would likely include Hamas extremists.
So the chess game continues. Jalal Salman of An-Najah University, a Palestinian school, said, "Sharon went a long way down the path to peace, and he is the only Israeli leader capable of making peace with the Palestinians." But Israel's volatile politics will probably cast up new surprises: Few would have predicted in 2001 that doves in 2006 would be describing Mr. Sharon as an eagle rather than a buzzard.