Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dies at 85

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon takes part in a lighting of Hanukkah candles at his Jerusalem office on Dec. 27, 2005, prior to suffering a severe stroke the following year. Photo by Kevin Frayer-Pool/Getty Images

Israel’s Ariel Sharon, a decisive military commander and divisive prime minister, died Saturday. He had been in a coma since 2006. He was 85 years old.

Sharon’s son Gilad announced the death on Saturday afternoon outside the hospital near Tel Aviv where his father had been treated in recent years. “He has gone. He went when he decided to go,” he said.

Sharon was considered a great military leader within Israel. He commanded the Israeli Army since its start in 1948, and he fought in four major wars: the 1956 Suez War, the Six-Day War of 1967, the War of Attrition and the Yom-Kippur War of 1973.
Israeli army Southern Command Gen. Ariel Sharon inspects the Egyptian front on Oct. 1, 1973, in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War. Photo by Ministry of Defense via Getty Images

After retiring from the Army, Sharon held different ministerial posts in the Likud party, including minister of defense. In that role, he oversaw the 1982 Lebanon War and was later found by a commission established by the Israeli government to have had “personal responsibility” for not stopping the slaughter by Lebanese militias of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in refugee camps in Beirut. He resigned from the ministry in 1983.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, center, is briefed by local mayor Rabbi Yaakov Guterman, left, on the route of Israel’s separation barrier on Nov. 8, 2005, in the West Bank community of Modi’in Illit. Photo by Moshe Milner/Israeli government press office via Getty Images

Sharon served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. During that time, he directed Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, angering some within his Likud party. In 2005, he split off and formed the more moderate Kadima party. The next year, he suffered a major stroke, which put him into a coma and a permanent vegetative state.

Throughout his years as prime minister, Sharon participated with various U.S. administrations on efforts to forge a peace agreement with the Palestinians, which remains elusive.

On the March 20, 2001, PBS NewsHour, analysts and former diplomats Dennis Ross, Mark Regev and Edward Abington discussed an upcoming meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then-President George W. Bush, and the challenges to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At the time, Yasser Arafat was chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The analysts said the prevailing sentiment was that changes had to be made on the ground before a peace agreement could be reached.

Ross: “I think what you really have to focus on is: How do you change the realities on the ground? There is an economic reality, it has got to be addressed. There is a security reality that has got to be addressed. There is a day-to-day reality in terms of the how the two sides interact with each other that has to be addressed.”

Prior to another U.S. visit in the spring of 2004, Sharon had announced a plan to pull Israel out of the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank. He said some West Bank settlements would remain under Israeli control, which was considered illegal under international law.

Analysts David Makovsky and Hisham Melhem discussed the potential impacts of Sharon’s controversial actions on the Oct. 26, 2004 NewsHour.

Makovsky: “(Sharon) demonstrated a sort of determination, the single mindedness that as one Likud member told me in Israel this summer, we liked him when he was more of a bulldozer and dealing with the Palestinians, but now he’s turned the bulldozer against us, his own party and against the settler movement. He has shown that sense of determination, and I’m not surprised; he has gambled his entire political future on this issue, and he wants to prevail.”

Despite the opposition to his Gaza pullout plan, Sharon went on to survive a no-confidence vote in Israel’s parliament as he had done several times earlier.

Sharon is survived by two sons, Omri and Gilad.

We’ll have more on Ariel Sharon’s life on the PBS NewsHour Weekend. View all of our World coverage.