Ariel Sharon, one of the most influential figures in Israeli history, passed away on Saturday after eight years in a stroke-induced coma. The life of the polarizing former general and prime minister contained the entire history of his country: Sharon was born 20 years before Israel's founding, fought or commanded troops in all of its major wars, and served nearly every post in its government for over 30 years.
As Israeli historian Benny Morris writes today, "The passions that consumed Sharon throughout his 85 years were the army, in which he served more or less continuously from 1947 until 1973, and politics, where he starred from 1973 until 2006, when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and fell into a coma while serving as prime minister."
Sharon's last years of political activity were among the most defining of his complicated legacy. A renowned military tactician and an unforgiving (and much feared) commander, Sharon shocked his country and much of the world when the lifelong hawk decided to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, the coastal strip that Israel captured from Egypt in 1967. The move was a stroke of daring for the longtime advocate of Israeli settlements. Following the disengagement from Gaza, Sharon left his right-wing political party to form his own centrist outfit, Kadima, which captured the most seats in the Israeli parliament even after Sharon was struck ill.
As tributes pour in over the next few days, Sharon's life will be explained and re-explained by its many crucial plot points. Among them are his feats as a commander in both the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973) as well as his troubled legacy as defense minister during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which saw an initially limited battle escalate into a war. After the First Lebanon War, Sharon resigned after he was found indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians by an Israel-allied Christian militia in Lebanon.
Nearly 20 years later, Sharon was elected prime minister in a landslide victory over then-sitting Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2001. Following the end of the Second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal, Sharon was said to have designs on withdrawing from the West Bank when he suffered a massive stroke. Some Israelis contend that Sharon was the only leader with the political strength to manage such a feat.