Ruthless soldier who would promise to find 'true peace'

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon is known as "the bulldozer". As Israeli defence minister, he was the architect of the massacre of more than 1,000 people in the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon. He also triggered the second Palestinian Intifada by paying a single visit to the Arab "holy of holies", the Temple Mount, in 2000.

He is the father of the Israeli settlement movement and, as prime minister, presided over the building of the "security fence", the wall seen by the Palestinians as enshrining the separation of Palestinians and Israelis by encroaching on Arab land in defiance of international law.

He is the leader who confined Yasser Arafat to his bunker in Ramallah after swearing he would never deal with his old foe whom he had once forced into exile from Beirut.

And yet the 77-year-old Mr Sharon is also a pragmatist, who broke with the ideologues of the Likud bloc to form his own centrist party that is expected to win the elections in March thanks to the support of moderate politicians in the Labour party and from Likud's traditional base.

After the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and from four settlements in the West Bank, which was completed in September, he is considered a traitor by many in his own constituency.

Mr Sharon's bulky frame bestrides Israeli politics like a colossus. He was born in Palestine in 1928, which was then under the British mandate. After fighting in every Israeli war, from the independence war of 1948 to the Middle East war of 1973, he came to prominence as a ruthless commander.

In 1953, he led the army commando unit "101" that carried out a raid inside Jordan in which 69 people were killed in reprisal for a Palestinian guerrilla attack. He was blocked from becoming chief of staff after his occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 brought accusations of a "disregard for human life."

After serving in the 1973 Middle East war, Mr Sharon left the military and entered politics, founding the hardline Likud Party, which came to power in 1977.

The Israelis forced him out of office after an inquiry commission found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Chatila killings. He retired to his ranch in the Negev desert.

Yet he returned to active politics and, in 1999, led the Likud party to office after his long-time rival, Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated in a general election.

Over the years, Mr Sharon served his country as defence minister, agriculture minister, foreign minister and housing minister. As prime minister, he persuaded the Americans that the internationally-backed "roadmap for peace" was dead, as Palestinian suicide bombings took their toll. In 2002, he won President George Bush's support for his unilateral decision to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank as the first step towards Mr Bush's "vision" of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Mr Bush said he believed that Mr Sharon was "a man of peace." Yet Israeli and Palestinian commentators are still divided over Mr Sharon's real intentions: is it Gaza "first and last" or does the Israeli leader intend to return the rest of the land occupied since 1967 to the Arabs? And how can Mr Sharon's plan produce a "viable" two-state solution as proposed by President Bush?

The withdrawal from Gaza split his Likud party, and he left it to form Kadima (Forward) last November. He was putting together a list of candidates for the parliamentary election when he suffered the stroke last night, one day before he had been scheduled to be admitted to hospital for heart surgery.

In addition to questions over his strategy, Mr Sharon had not been a stranger to political controversy. His sons had been implicated in a party financing scandal, which returned to haunt the Prime Minister this week.

On Tuesday night, an Israeli television channel reported that police had asked a court for permission to search an Austrian businessman's computer over suspicions that Mr Sharon's family had received $3m (£1.7m) from foreign donors. Police have been trying to trace the source of funds they suspect that Mr Sharon used to repay illegal campaign contributions he received in 1999, when he ran for the leadership of the Likud party.

A separate corruption probe against Mr Sharon was dropped last year. Mr Sharon had denied any wrongdoing in that case. His son, Omri, has pleaded guilty to providing false testimony and falsifying documents after an investigation into corruption in the funding of Mr Sharon's bid to become Likud leader.

Like every other Israeli prime minister, his watchword has been security for Israelis - on his own terms. For most of his career, that meant keeping maximum land and political rights for the Jewish state and giving the very minimum of these to the Palestinians.

0n 6 February 2001, when he won a landslide victory, he pledged to achieve "security and true peace" while insisting he would not be bound by previous negotiations with the Palestinians.

By forming the new centrist party Kadima, he had been confident of winning a third term as prime minister after the March election, until fate intervened last night.

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