Ariel Sharon's life spanned the trajectory of Israel's history, from a boyhood on a secular, collective farm in the days of the British mandate, to participation in Israel's War of Independence, to the battles, sieges and struggles of the six decades that followed. For much of his life, Sharon was renowned for his headstrong manner and his ruthlessness with Israel's Arab foes. He was a brilliant military tactician who as a politician could be by turns clever, charismatic and brutal. Most remarkably, a lifetime of battles eventually brought him, as Israel's prime minister, to the cusp of a profound drive for peace, cut short by a stroke eight years ago from which he never recovered.
Sharon displayed a soldier's determination and zeal throughout his life. He joined the Haganah, a pre-state military force, when still a teenager. While serving as a platoon commander he was wounded in the 1948 battle of Latrun, but returned to combat. In the 1950s, Sharon led the commando Unit 101. A reprisal raid in 1953 on the Arab village of Qibya blew up houses and a school, killing 69 Arabs, among them women and children. In the Suez campaign, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Sharon proved both a war hero and an insubordinate commander who judged for himself — often correctly — what course would bring victory.
Sharon shifted to political wars in the 1970s. With his shock of white hair and sizeable girth, he was an intimidating figure who pursued every goal with ferocity. He won the adoration of many Israeli Jews who believed they were perpetually under siege and admired such a relentless champion. Sharon's expansive view of Israel's military might have brought him to perhaps his greatest disaster, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The decision to crush the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon was not Sharon's alone, but he did bear “indirect responsibility,” as a commission later put it, for permitting Phalangist militiamen to massacre Palestinians in the shantytowns of Sabra and Shatila, a bloody and shameful stain.
One of Sharon's most lasting legacies was the expansion of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank. He conceived of settlements as attractive bedroom suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The communities expanded dramatically under his supervision during the 1980s and early 1990s, defying U.S. objections and Palestinian protests.
As prime minister in the early 2000s, Sharon reached a final battlement. He concluded, as Yitzhak Rabin had before him, that Israel's future security lay in ceding land to the Palestinians and disengaging the two peoples. Sharon gave up the Gaza Strip in 2005, began building a separation barrier in the West Bank, started the centrist Kadima party and was leading Israel toward a decisive disengagement from Palestinian lands when he fell ill. Sharon was seen by many as the one Israeli leader with enough stature to succeed at carrying out a withdrawal from most, if not all, of the West Bank. Sadly, his successors remain stuck where he left off.