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Ariel Sharon's secret was his war record and reputation for toughness against Arabs

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FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2005 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon smiles during a question and answer session with Israeli news editors at the Journalist's Association in Tel Aviv, Israel. Sharon, the hard-charging Israeli general and prime minister who was admired and hated for his battlefield exploits and ambitions to reshape the Middle East, died Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. The 85-year-old Sharon had been in a coma since a debilitating stroke eight years ago.(AP Photo/Kevin Frayer, File) (The Associated Press)

Many had written off Ariel Sharon after his ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon and a government commission's finding that he was indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps outside Beirut.

They just didn't get it.

A few days after the blue-ribbon Kahan Commission presented its findings in 1983, Sharon went to the desert town of Kiryat Malachi for a meeting of the Likud Party, which he had helped found a decade earlier.

It was a hot evening in the dusty development town, where most of the residents were working-class Jewish immigrants from North Africa and their children — Sharon's constituency.

The local Likud boss welcomed Sharon as Israel's greatest hero, and cheers rattled the windows as the "disgraced" ex-defense minister made his entrance. "Arik, king of Israel," they chanted, calling him by his nickname. One after another, speakers praised Sharon and defended his actions. People pressed forward to shake his hand.

The peak moment came when a young man in a simple work shirt bound onto the stage carrying his tiny baby son. To the cheers of the crowd, he said that he had just named his son "Sharon."

These were Sharon's people — less-educated, simple, straightforward and hardworking, who shared his views of Arabs as untrustworthy types who understood only the use of force.

That was Sharon's defining characteristic in those distant days. As an army commander in the 1950s, he answered Palestinian bloodshed with bigger bloodshed. In 1973, with the Yom Kippur War going against Israel, he thumbed his nose at superiors who tried to keep him in check and led an Israeli force across the Suez Canal, trapping part of Egypt's army and turning the war in Israel's favor.

A stocky figure with an unruly mop of white hair and a high-pitched voice that was a gift to mimics, he did not come by his charisma with chiseled looks, modulated voices and carefully crafted statements.

Sharon earned his with action on the battlefield, and a personal charm that often got lost in his tough public persona.

At 260 pounds, the rotund Sharon was a hard man to miss, and he wasn't about joking about it.

Shortly before he was incapacitated by a stroke in early 2006, Sharon was asked whether a new political alliance might drag the famously right-wing ex-general to the left. He patted his barrel of a paunch and replied: "Look at me. Do you really think anybody could drag me anywhere?"

His love of dining took its toll. Driven to a June 2002 visit to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at No. 10 Downing Street he had to be pushed and pulled until he popped free from the back seat of the government Jaguar.

He was reputed to have a fierce temper, but although he would rebuke journalists he believed had been sloppy or unfair, he did so without raising his voice — at least in public.

Sharon was a courtly man. When women entered a room he stood up until they were seated. And when an Israeli journalist covering his visit to Auschwitz was overcome with tears, he ushered her into his armored limousine so that she could compose herself in private.

So strong was the adoration for him that many of his hard-line followers followed him when he switched ideological sides at the end of his career.

After decades of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, urging settlers to grab as much land as they could and voting against peace deals, Sharon took the unprecedented step in 2005 of pulling out of all of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, destroying 25 settlements.

If a dovish Israeli government had tried that, there could have been blood in the streets, riots led by Sharon's own backers and maybe Sharon himself. Suddenly, Sharon became a hero even to many who hated him just three years earlier.

The West embraced him. Israeli moderates turned to him for leadership. Arab leaders who had vilified and boycotted him called him the only hope for peace.

In Israel's 57-year history, there has never been anyone like Ariel Sharon. Only a figure who evoked such visceral empathy, such emotional identification, could switch sides so blatantly and not only get away with it, but also bring most of his supporters across the divide with him.

It will be a long time, if ever, until another Israeli politician can attract that kind of loyalty.

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Mark Lavie has reported on Ariel Sharon's military and political career for The Associated Press since 1972.