When Ariel Sharon died on Saturday, the State of Israel lost one of the most charismatic, colorful and influential figures in its annals – one who throughout any and all stages of his career never ceased stirring tempests of rancorous controversy.

Nonetheless, even if grudgingly, affection was always reserved for him as an authentic native son, a generic Sabra and a popular hero – one who was always called by his nickname.

Arik was considered a troublemaker from his youngest days in school at the Sharon moshav of Kfar Malal, through his military service as a young officer in the Alexandroni Brigade during the War of Independence and later as the commander of the Unit 101 crack raiding outfit that spearheaded the young state’s counterterrorism missions. His escapades earned him simultaneous adulation and criticism, most notably from prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

Sharon garnered glory for derring-do feats in the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War, despite persistent detractors who carped from the sidelines. All this reached a crescendo during the Yom Kippur War, when his forces crossed the Suez Canal amid Arik’s acrimonious bickering with other generals.

He was just as pugnacious in political life. A member of the socialist Mapai, he joined the capitalist Liberal Party and engineered its merger with Herut to form the Likud. But having been elected to the Knesset on the Likud ticket, Sharon soon quit to become Yitzhak Rabin’s defense adviser. He then set up the short-lived Shlomzion faction that was quickly reabsorbed into the Likud.

As Menachem Begin’s first agriculture minister, he energized the settlements as never before. But as defense minister from 1981 to 1983 he evacuated Sinai and destroyed many of the very settlements he fostered.

During the First Lebanon War he was seen as having critically misled Begin about the real aims of the campaign and after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres he was censured by a judicial inquiry commission and removed from office.

During Yitzhak Shamir’s term as prime minister, Sharon became one of the “constraints ministers” who distrusted Shamir’s commitment to Eretz Yisrael.

Sharon won the Likud leadership after Binyamin Netanyahu’s electoral defeat in 1999 and his visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000 was considered by many as the match that ignited the second intifada.

By the time Sharon assumed the premiership in 2001, it was leaked that he was being investigated for illegal campaign contributions. Corruption suspicions against him mushroomed when in 2003 he tossed the disengagement bombshell into the political arena and announced his intention to proceed with a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Some suspected that this was born out of his legal distress and the consequent need to curry favor with the Left, which held sway in the judiciary and the media. Sharon initiated a Likud referendum on the Gaza withdrawal which he lost, causing him to leave the Likud and found Kadima.

He carried out the disengagement and is still berated by some on the Right, who had been his most ardent adherents, as a traitor.

In a way, even the astounding about-face he performed typified him. His entire life in the limelight was fraught with glaring inconsistencies and unexpected – often, in the eyes of some – even reckless, devil-may-care defiance of authority.

The disengagement, just a few months before his catastrophic stroke, was by far the boldest both in scale and audacity. Yet it was hardly unique when examined against his consistent disregard for the powers that be and his imperious imposition of his will.

Despite his excesses, Sharon one way or another elicited a curious indulgence of the sort that was eventually denied to other mythic heroes, Moshe Dayan foremost. No matter how wayward his conduct, and no matter how much he may have willfully broken the rules, he retained the allure of the nation’s favorite firebrand.

Perhaps it was because that at different junctures, there were vastly different versions of him, and most everyone can find an Arik of one period of another to be nostalgic about.

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