One of the founding fathers of Israel and a major player in Israeli politics for more than 30 years, Ariel Sharon began his term as prime minister in 2001. Although he still officially holds the title, a serious stroke on January 4, 2006, has left him incapacitated.
Reporter Ari Shavit, who has written extensively about the prime minister, describes Sharon as the “samurai of Zionism,” a warrior who for most of his life was deeply committed to expanding Israel into the occupied territories. Known as “Arik the Settler” as well as “The General,” Sharon was one of the epic heroes of the Zionist dream. Although he was not a religious man, he had a deep and passionate attachment to the biblical lands of Israel and was a fierce leader of the settler movement.
Then in 2005, in a reversal as dramatic as a Greek tragedy, he made the decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and dismantle the settlements. This earned him the wrath of the settlers he had championed in the past and the surprising approval of the Israeli left. Now nearing the end of his life, Ariel Sharon leaves an incontrovertible legacy.
Born in 1928 to Russian immigrants who emigrated to Israel long before the Nazis rose to power in Europe, Sharon joined an underground military organization at the age of 14 that was committed to forming an Israeli state. The group, the Haganah, later became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and during the 1948 War of Independence, Sharon commanded an IDF infantry company. His military career continued for more than 25 years, encompassing other milestones in Israel’s history, including the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973). He retired from army service with the rank of major-general.
Sharon’s political career took off when he was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, in 1973. From 1975 to 1977, he was special security adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Later, he became minister of agriculture in Menachem Begin’s first term, then defense minister during the Lebanon War.
In 1983, a government commission found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, and he was forced to resign his post. But this was little more than a minor setback in Sharon’s political career, and he continued to rise through the political ranks, eventually becoming prime minister.
Until recently, he was a member of the right-wing Likud Party, but the discontent of party members over his Gaza disengagement policies led him to form a new, more moderate party. In November 2005, he founded the Kadima (“forward”) Party as a centrist alternative to Likud.
He is a widower and has two surviving children.