“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

That line from an old ballad, cited by U.S. military hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur in his farewell address to Congress in 1951, could well be applied to Ariel Sharon. The larger-than-life Israeli general, statesman and prime minister, who began his long, slow fade from the public conscience eight years ago, will be remembered as a man who made history, both in war and in politics. Praised or reviled, he was a commanding presence, a leader who usually got his way.

On the eve of the massive stroke that left him in a coma, he was a powerful prime minister expected to soon win re-election. Once revered by the settler movement for his unstinting support, he was reviled when he withdrew Israel’s troops and thousands of citizens from Gaza in 2005, believing that was the price to pay for maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. The Likud party that he had led turned against him for the Gaza withdrawal, so he formed a new party, Kadima, determined to continue on his path. That’s what Sharon was like – bulldozer, visionary or both.

His biography reads like the history of the State of Israel. A war hero at 20 in the War of Independence, he was then chosen to lead the famous, or infamous, Unit 101, which was brutally successful in combatting Arab terrorists. He built his reputation as Israel’s greatest commander for his success in the Sinai desert, first in the Six Day War, and six years later during the Yom Kippur War, when he defied his military superiors and led an end-around attack that encircled the Egyptian Third Army and effectively saved Israel from a disastrous defeat.

Military experts around the world still teach the lessons of that typically bold, defiant and brilliant move by Sharon. But another of his rebellious military actions, in 1982 – to extend the invasion against Yasir Arafat and seek to finish him and the PLO off – proved disastrous and left Israeli troops in Lebanon for many years. Sharon was accused of deceiving Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and for his indirect role in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, he was forced to step down as defense minister. His military and political career appeared over.

But Sharon came back and was elected prime minister in 2001, defeating incumbent Ehud Barak after being blamed by some for setting off the second intifada by touring the Temple Mount complex.

It was Sharon who struck back forcefully against Palestinian strongholds at the low point of the suicide bombing campaign, who built the security fence, and who planned and carried out the evacuation of Jews from Gaza. To those who would argue that he wavered in his actions — now using force, now pulling back – he would insist that he was being consistent: defending the Jewish people, whatever that required.

However he is judged by history, he was a man of his convictions, dedicated to his mission, gruff at times, tender at others – a native sabra and the personification of a proud, brave Israeli.

editor@jewishweek.org