JERUSALEM, Jan 11 (Reuters) : Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli general and prime minister who was in a coma for eight years after he had a stroke at the height of his power, died on Saturday aged 85, Israeli Army Radio said, quoting a relative of his family.
A maverick in war and politics, Israel's Ariel Sharon reshaped West Asia in a career marked by adventurism and disgrace, dramatic reversals and stunning rebounds.
Loathed by many Arabs and a divisive figure within Israel, Sharon left his mark on the region as perhaps no other through military invasion, Jewish settlement building on captured land and a shock decision to pull out of Gaza.
A commander in the army from the birth of Israel in 1948, he went on to hold many of the top offices of state, surviving fierce debate over his role in refugee camp massacres in the 1982 Lebanon war to be elected prime minister in 2001.
Famously overweight, he suffered a stroke that put him into a coma in 2006, when he was at the height of his power, and died on Saturday without ever apparently regaining consciousness.
Some diplomats believed that had he remained in good health, he would have secured peace with the Palestinians after overcoming domestic critics to force through the withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
“As one who fought in all of Israel's wars, and learned from personal experience that without proper force, we do not have a chance of surviving in this region ... I have also learned from experience that the sword alone cannot decide this bitter dispute in this land,” Sharon said in 2004, explaining his move.
But critics said the unilateralism he favoured helped discredit diplomacy and embolden ideological hardliners.
As prime minister, Sharon presided over some of the most turbulent times in Israeli-Palestinian history, a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 and an Israeli military crackdown after peace talks collapsed. As Israel's leader, he besieged his arch-nemesis Yasser Arafat with tanks after suicide bombers flooded Israel from the occupied West Bank.
Sharon joined the pre-state Haganah Jewish underground at the age of 14.
Wounded as a young officer in the 1948 war of Israel's founding, he went on to lead key commando units and crafted a policy of reprisals - even at the cost of innocent lives - for cross-border Palestinian guerrilla raids.
Along with a reputation in the military for recklessness and disobeying orders, Sharon was hailed for daring operations that brought victories on the battlefield. He retired a major-general.
“It was he who set out the principle that no one who attacked our troops or civilians would be immune, no matter where they were,” said ex-Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.
Known in Israel by his popular nickname “Arik”, Sharon could charm with a grandfatherly glint in his eye and a jocular laugh. He could also flash disapproval with a cold, steely stare. He had a penchant for Broadway musicals and copious amounts of food.
Sharon was married twice. His first wife, Margalit, died in a car accident in 1962. They had one son, who was killed in 1967 when a friend accidentally shot him while playing with a rifle. In 1963, Sharon married Margalit's sister, Lily, who died of cancer in 2000. They had two sons.
“Sharon was a mass of contradictions - a peerless cynic and a proven patriot, a man who built up the Likud and then walked out on it, who mixed up Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank while pulling out of Gaza,” said Uzi Benziman, author of “Sharon: An Israeli Caesar”.
He noted the varying theories about what motivated the Gaza withdrawal, including that it aimed to distract from corruption allegations at the time that dogged Sharon and his sons.
“Whatever the truth, it cannot be denied that Sharon's legacy was to convey to Israelis that holding on to all of the (Palestinian) territories would not last,” Benziman said. “He was the last of the real leaders.”