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Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, fierce defender of Israel, dies at 85

Ariel Sharon, a monumental figure in Israel's modern history who epitomized the country's warrior past even as he sought as prime minister to become the architect of a peaceful future, died Saturday of organ failure, eight years after a massive stroke left him in a vegetative state. He was 85.

His body was to lie in state at the parliament Sunday before he is laid to rest at his ranch in southern Israel Monday, Israeli media reported. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation.

As a soldier, defense minister and prime minister, Sharon fought or commanded forces in every one of Israel's military conflicts for more than half a century, beginning with its 1948 independence war, and was author of the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

As a politician, he built the infrastructure of the country's controversial settlement campaign in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, then stunned friend and foe alike by dismantling part of the project he had long championed.

Through it all, Sharon commanded center stage, insisting at times that he alone knew what was best for the state of Israel and persevering through countless humiliations that would have long killed off the careers of less determined men. At the time of his stroke in January 2006, he was in the process of seeking to extend his time as prime minister by forging a new centrist political movement based upon his personal popularity.

His death was greeted with the same strong feelings he evoked in life. Israelis called him a war hero. His enemies called him a war criminal.

President Barack Obama remembered Sharon as "a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel." Palestinians who distributed candy prayed for divine punishment and said they regretted he was never held accountable for his actions against them.

The man who chose the title "Warrior" for his autobiography was for much of his career the darling of the Israeli right, which chanted "Arik, King of Israel!" invoking his nickname and comparing him to the legendary biblical King David.

For decades, he used that support to undermine governments of both the rival Labor and his own Likud parties and advance his personal political agenda. But in later years, as he first organized Israel's withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and made plans for pullbacks from parts of the West Bank, the right denounced him as a traitor.

Ariel Scheinermann was born in 1928 in Palestine, then under British rule, in a cooperative farming village. He took the Hebrew name for "plain" (as in the Israeli coastal plain of Sharon) and as a teenager joined the Haganah, the main Jewish underground movement opposed to British rule. During Israel's war of independence, he commanded an infantry unit and was wounded during the battle to secure the road to besieged Jerusalem.

After spending time as a reservist, Sharon was recalled to create and lead Unit 101 to conduct commando operations against Palestinian guerrillas. It was there that he first won recognition for brutally effective tactics and retaliatory raids.

Sharon fought with distinction during the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. He led the daring but bloody attack across the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that rolled back Egyptian forces. Critics inside the army accused him of disobeying orders, overstretching his supply lines and causing needless casualties, but supporters said his campaign left Israel in a superior tactical position when a cease-fire was declared.

As agriculture minister after a right-wing Likud coalition under Menachem Begin took power in 1977, Sharon launched the massive construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. When Begin was re-elected in 1981, Sharon gained the post he had long coveted: defense minister.

Soon, using Palestine Liberation Organization raids on Israel as his justification, he set out to break the power of Yasser Arafat's guerrillas with an ambitious invasion that took the Israeli army to the edge of Beirut.

The operation eventually succeeded in expelling Arafat and his fighters to Tunis. But critics accused Sharon of having deceived the prime minister and the cabinet about the extent of his invasion plans -- allegations Sharon always denied.

Sharon was forced to resign after an independent Israeli judicial commission ruled that he bore indirect responsibility for failing to prevent a massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps south of Beirut by Israel's Lebanese Christian militia allies.

Sharon clawed his way back in "national unity governments" that ruled between 1984 and 1990. In 1996, soon after his younger Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, was elected prime minister, Netanyahu appointed Sharon as foreign minister.

Sharon's controversial visit in September 2000 to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a site considered holy to both Muslims and Jews, helped trigger a second Palestinian uprising that smothered hopes for a final peace deal. After a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings of civilian targets and Israeli military reprisals, voters elected Sharon prime minister in 2001.

Until Sharon's final stroke, he remained convinced that only he could successfully oversee Israel's transition to a more secure state. His bottom line, he told Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in 2005, was that however he managed the purported peace process, he would not risk "the blood of a single Israeli citizen."

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