Israeli right-wing Likud politician, prime minister 2001–06. Initially a soldier, he left the army in 1973 to help found the Likud party with Menachem Begin. He was elected to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 1977 and held a succession of influential posts. A leading member of the staunchly nationalist new right, he took over Likud's leadership from Binyamin Netanyahu after the party's defeat in the 1999 general election. His electoral victory over Labour's Ehud Barak in February 2001 endangered the Israel–Palestine peace process, as it was his controversial visit to Jerusalem's Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in September 2000 that precipitated a second Palestinian intifada (uprising). In January 2006, shortly before a general election, Sharon suffered a massive stroke and entered a coma, in which he remained until his death eight years later. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, took over as party leader and prime minister.
Sharon formed a coalition government with the Labour Party in 2001 and took a hardline approach, vowing he would not budge in any future negotiations with Palestine over the status of Jerusalem, which he pledged would remain ‘whole and united’ under Israeli sovereignty. In March 2002, in retaliation against suicide bombings by Palestinian extremists, he launched operation ‘Defensive Wall’, building a security barrier around the West Bank. He also declared that all leaders of the Palestinian extremists were targets for assassination and during 2003–04 a number were killed by Israeli forces.
This forceful approach, however, was met by further suicide bombings against Israeli targets and from November 2003 Sharon began to pursue a new strategy of unilateral withdrawal from parts of the occupied territories, culminating in the expulsion of Jewish settlers and full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005. Sharon's motivation was to freeze the peace process, which was being driven by a US-developed ‘road map’, and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state until the Palestinian leadership had abandoned violence and terrorism. This ‘disengagement plan’ was popular with Israeli voters, but split the Likud party. In November 2005, ahead of a general election set for March 2006, Sharon resigned as Likud leader and formed a new party, Kadima.
Born on a moshav (agricultural settlement) in Palestine, when it was a British mandate, Sharon made his name as a fearless and ruthless soldier. He joined the Jewish underground military organization Haganah, and fought in the 1948–49 Arab–Israeli war, after the creation of the Jewish state. In the early 1950s he founded and led the counter-insurgency Unit 101; in 1956 he led paratroops during the Suez war; in the 1967 Six-Day War he was a divisional commander in Sinai, where he enforced harsh occupation measures against Palestinians; and in the 1973 Arab–Israeli war he had success in the Suez Canal region.
Sharon acted as a special security adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 1975–77. As agriculture minister under Begin 1977–81, Sharon encouraged new Jewish settlements in recently occupied territories. He then served as defence minister and was the architect of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He was forced to resign in 1983 after an investigating tribunal found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut. However, Sharon returned in 1984 as trade and industry minister in a Likud–Labor national unity government. His opposition in 1990 to Middle East peace proposals drawn up by US secretary of state James Baker helped bring an end to this coalition. He resigned, but was then appointed housing minister in Yitzhak Shamir's 1990–92 Likud administration, and presided over a major building drive in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. He served as minister of national infrastructure 1996–98 and foreign minister 1998–99 under Netanyahu.
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