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Ariel Sharon's Mixed Legacy for Israelis

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and cerebral hemorrhage last week. His doctors say he is not expected to resume his duties and his political career appears to have ended. VOA's Carol Pearson reports Mr. Sharon's life and career spanned the entire history of the modern state of Israel.

Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 to Russian immigrant parents in the farming community of KFar Mala, north of the city of Tel Aviv. The modern state of Israel had not yet been created. Mr. Sharon would play an active role in that creation and in many of the defining moments of its history.

An ardent Zionist as a young man, he joined a Jewish militia with the aim of driving British forces from Palestine. In Israel's war of Independence in 1948, he was severely wounded in one eye in the battle to break the siege of Jerusalem.

Focusing on a military career, he earned a reputation as a fearless and innovative military commander, winning accolades in the 1967 Six Day War, for his command of an armored division.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War he emerged as a brilliant military tactician leading Israeli troops across the Suez Canal to cut off Egypt's Third Army.

Dennis Ross, a former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East, says the military shaped Mr. Sharon's political outlook, "He certainly came to believe that the only way peace would be possible would be for Israeli strength to be respected," said Mr. Ross.

In 1973 Mr. Sharon turned to politics, and was elected to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on the conservative Likud Party ticket, a party he helped to form.

Philip Wilcox, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says Mr. Sharon's military prowess also provided his political legitimacy, “He was seen primarily as a man who could protect Israel's security,” Mr. Wilcox told us. “And that is at the heart of his popularity and leadership. He projected an image of strength and decisiveness, protecting Israel, and Israel not withstanding its great military power and success -- is a country that feels very insecure."

However, while Mr. Sharon's military prowess boosted his political career, he also earned a reputation for recklessness and was rebuked on several occasions by his military commanders for his rash behavior. He also earned a reputation among Palestinians for brutality. He oversaw the occupation of Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank when Israeli forces killed and detained thousands of Palestinians.

In 1982 as Defense Minister, he organized and initiated Israel's invasion of Lebanon, leading an offensive against Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. The invasion resulted in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps under Israeli control near Beirut.

Michael Hudson directs the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He says, "Sharon's involvement in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatilla, in which right wing Lebanese militias, but under the guns and apparently with the tolerance of the Israeli Army, massacred hundreds of Palestinians. This led really to his fall from grace."

Mr. Sharon was removed from office. An Israeli tribunal investigating the killings concluded that Mr. Sharon was indirectly responsible for them.

Mr. Sharon's political comeback began in 2000 after the so-called Second Intifada or Palestinian uprising began following his controversial visit to the disputed Temple Mount, or Haram Al Sharif. It is a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. The bloodshed resulting from the second Intifada led in part to the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Mr. Sharon won an overwhelming victory in 2001, winning reelection in 2003.

In 2005 Mr. Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced a cease-fire and in October of 2005, Mr. Sharon completed the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, something he had once said he would never do.

Shukri Abed is Palestinian and a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He says Ariel Sharon was probably Israel's most hated figure among the Palestinians,” To say the least not trusted, and probably hated by many of them,” he says. “Because of his strong positions, because of his building settlements, he was the father of building settlements."

In November of 2005, facing growing discontent in the ruling Likud Party over his decision to withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip, Mr. Sharon announced he was leaving the Party, taking key allies with him to form a new centrist political movement called Kadima, or "forward" in Hebrew. Polls indicated Mr. Sharon was well on his way to winning a third term as prime minister.

Philip Wilcox says, as a result of his unexpected exit, Mr. Sharon's legacy is mixed. "There are those Israelis who saw Sharon as a potential Gaul, the man who would rescue Israel from a dangerous fateful adventure in occupation and settlement which was hurting Israel, which was the source of perpetual conflict and violence,” said Mr. Wilcox. “And that is why people supported Sharon. There are others who thought Sharon had a much more narrow vision of the future and was not prepared to make peace."

In his breakaway speech from the Likud Party, Ariel Sharon said he would try and achieve Israel's final border with the Palestinians through negotiation a task that is now left to his successor. But it is a task many now doubt can be achieved.