January 16, 2014 5:30 PM EST

In April 1979, I traveled with Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, on a visit to the Golan Heights. Throughout the trip, I had cautioned myself not to be caught up by his irresistible charm, and I made a point of calling him “Mr. Sharon,” which irritated him: he preferred to be called Arik, his nickname. Finally, Sharon turned to one of his aides. “As I told you before‚ we did not break him,” he said, referring to me. “Even after all these hours, he still believes that I am a chauvinist.”

Sharon often felt misunderstood and misrepresented as a knee-jerk belligerent. I asked him if he had liked participating in war. The former army general began his response solemnly, saying only a man like him–a man who had fought in all of Israel’s wars and sustained injuries in two of them–could love peace as much as he did. But then, in a more pensive vein, he added that, to him, fighting was like farming: both activities were essential to life. And yes, he loved them both. When he had his car stopped to take something out of the trunk, I noticed a Kalashnikov rifle and a shovel. “You can never know when any of these might come in handy,” he said.

Like Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon, who died on Jan. 11 at the age of 85, was a mythic figure. But he was driven predominantly by an arrogance of power and lacked much of Dayan’s and Rabin’s statesmanship. His 2005 decision as Prime Minister to forcibly evict Jewish settlers and pull back Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip has often been attributed to “a new Arik,” at last ready to move toward peace with the Palestinians. But the following year, he suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma, so we never learned if there really was a new Arik. The old one was no peacemaker.

Segev, an Israeli historian, is writing a biography of David Ben-Gurion

This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.

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