Ariel Sharon, former prime minister of Israel, dies at 85

Last Updated Jan 11, 2014 2:49 PM EST

Ariel Sharon's life was one of dramatic highs and lows. As a soldier, he was both a war hero and a national disgrace. As a politician, he was a brazen leader who fought for Israel’s security, but became despised for withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and offering Palestinians a state of their own.

His son, Gilad Sharon, announced his death Saturday, saying "he went when he decided to go."

Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement that he will lead the U.S. delegation to Israel for Sharon's funeral, which was scheduled for Monday near his ranch in the Negev Desert.

In a statement released by the White House, President Obama called Sharon "a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel."

"We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel's security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples," Mr. Obama said. "We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security."

 The man Israel knew as "Arik" began serving as the nation's prime minister in March 2001. A highly controversial figure as both a longtime political and military leader, Sharon was also known as "the bulldozer" for his aggressive style.

Short and burly -- he was 5-foot-7 and weighed well over 250 pounds before his debilitating stroke in 2006 -- Sharon seemed larger than life. Proud and defiant, he liked to remind Israelis that he fought in every one of the country's five wars since its founding more than half a century ago.

Born in 1928 to Russian immigrants, Sharon first fought in the Jewish militia whose founding preceded statehood in 1948. Sharon then rose swiftly through the ranks of the Israeli army, making his name on the battlefield as he went. His bold advance across the Suez Canal helped turn the tide of the 1973 Mideast war.

But Sharon also masterminded Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The unapproved military strike stopped Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization from using Lebanon to launch attacks against Israel, but it also resulted in the massacre of hundreds of innocent Palestinians.

 An Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible and in early 1983, he was removed from his post as defense minister. His political future seemed doomed, but he would gradually resurrect his career, serving in parliament and holding a variety of cabinet posts.

Sharon defied international protests, leading a push to build dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. But after his party's election defeat in 1999, Sharon devoted more of his time to his sheep farm in southern Israel.

Failed peace talks and a Palestinian uprising, however, would draw him back onto the political stage. In 2001, Sharon was elected prime minister in a stunning landslide.

It was in his second term that Sharon stunned observers across the world -- including his domestic allies -- by offering Palestinians statehood and classifying Israel's rule over them an "occupation."

 Prior to withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and giving 1.3 million Palestinians a degree of autonomy after decades of Israeli rule, Sharon had always maintained a contrarily hard line.

As a member of parliament, he had never voted in favor of any of Israel's peace agreements with neighboring Arab states. He consistently refused to shake the hand of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who he called a murderer and a liar.

Sharon was a founding member and former head of the conservative Likud party. But in 2005, he broke away from the party and founded a new centrist party, Kadima ("Forward").

On Saturday, former President Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted Sharon's politics in a statement offering their condolences.

"Ariel Sharon gave his life to Israel - to bring it into being, to sustain and preserve it, and at the end of his long service, to create a new political party committed to both a just peace and lasting security," the Clintons said. "It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country."

In January 2006, Sharon's career was cut short when he suffered a massive stroke.

Ehud Olmert, the deputy prime minister and fellow Kadima party member, was confirmed as acting prime minister. Before suffering the incapacitating stroke, Sharon enjoyed enormous popularity and a wide lead in the polls. His Kadima party went on to win the largest number of seats in the March 2006 elections.

Supporters viewed Sharon as a leader who worked toward peace without compromising Israel's security. Many Israelis also consider him a war hero who helped defend the country during some of its greatest struggles.

Sharon's critics in Israel, however, say he undermined the peace process and surrendered too much security in exchange for peace with the Gaza pullout.

The divergent views on Sharon extended to the White House. Ronald Reagan, writing in his autobiography "An American Life," called then-defense minister Sharon "a bellicose man who seemed to be chomping at the bit to start a war."

In 2003, however, President George W. Bush referred to him as "a man of peace."

On Saturday, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement saying that Ban was "saddened" by Sharon's death.

"The Secretary-General calls on Israel to build on the late Prime Minister's legacy of pragmatism to work towards the long overdue achievement of an independent and viable Palestinian state, next to a secure Israel," the statement read. "At this time of national mourning, the Secretary-General renews the commitment of the United Nations to work alongside the Government and the people of Israel for peace and security."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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