Israel's danger man

Profile: Ariel Sharon
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The Independent Online

Meeting Ariel Sharon years ago, Henry Kissinger bluntly declared that he had heard he was the most dangerous politician in the Middle East. There is much competition for that title, but plenty of people would say that the Likud leader remains a most deserving candidate. This is cause for alarm, for in the next few days the ex-general could again become a senior member of the government of Israel.

Meeting Ariel Sharon years ago, Henry Kissinger bluntly declared that he had heard he was the most dangerous politician in the Middle East. There is much competition for that title, but plenty of people would say that the Likud leader remains a most deserving candidate. This is cause for alarm, for in the next few days the ex-general could again become a senior member of the government of Israel.

It is wrong to blame Sharon alone for causing the last four weeks of violence in the West Bank and Gaza. In fact - although the Oslo diplomats on all sides failed scandalously to attach sufficient importance to this - it had been incubating for months, fuelled by Palestinian despair over ever achieving a peace deal from Israel that reflected their perceived rights and aspirations, and by growing contempt on the Palestinian streets for their own badly compromised leadership.

But Sharon certainly set it off. His astoundingly irresponsible and ill-timed visit to the Haram-al-Sharif, or Temple Mount - the 35-acre plaza crowned by the golden Dome of the Rock that rises above Jerusalem's Old City - will go down in history as the event which lit the fuse.

In the weeks beforehand, friction over the Mount, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims, had been intensifying as it increasingly became the main focus of the foundering peace negotiations. Seized by Israel in 1967, it has long been a tinderbox, detonating bloodshed and riots in 1990 and 1996. Details of Sharon's planned visit had become public knowledge well in advance, so the Palestinians were already in a defiant mood when he arrived, in the early morning of 28 September, with six other Likud parliamentarians and an escort of 1,000 Israeli police officers. There were clashes on the Mount itself; by the next evening the unrest had spread across the occupied territories, destabilising the entire region.

Such a stunt by any Jewish politician would always have enraged Arab opinion. But the sight of the squat, bull-necked Ariel Sharon made it 10 times more inflammatory, as he occupies an unusually prominent position in the Palestinian gallery of Israeli hate-figures. For them, the labels usually attached to Sharon by the media - "hardline right-winger", "hawkish", "uncompromising" - are wholly inadequate.

They remember him as the ruthless commando colonel who led retaliatory raids against Palestinians who infiltrated Israel in the 1950s, and as the commander who was in charge of "pacifying" the seething and overcrowded Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The several Israeli-controlled roads that run east-west across the strip, allowing the army to seal off large sections (as they did this week, imposing an "internal closure" on Gaza City) were his work.

Palestinians still shudder when they recall how the men under Sharon - who was then the general in charge of Israel's southern command - destroyed some 2,000 homes in August 1971, uprooting 16,000 refugees as part of a drive to hunt down fighters from the Palestinian Liberation Army. He has been known for many years in Israeli political circles as "The Bulldozer" because of his tough and uncompromising style; the nickname, however, is apt in a broader sense.

Above all - and more now than ever - the Arabs see him as the Israeli politician with the most blood on his hands. He was the Defence Minister who led Israel into its divisive and hugely unpopular war in Lebanon in June 1982, sending tanks to the gates of Beirut. In particular, Palestinians will never forgive him for his role in the massacre of hundreds of their people in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israel's Lebanese Christian Phalangist allies - not long after the assassination of their leader and president-elect, Bashir Gemayel.

The Kahan commission of inquiry held by Israel found Sharon indirectly responsible, saying that he "disregarded the prospect of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps". It recommended that he resign, but Sharon refused. In the end, the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, allowed him to quit as Defence Minister, but to remain as a minister without portfolio.

Allegations that Sharon was ultimately to blame for the massacres have met with a typically defiant response. When Time magazine printed an article saying that before the massacre he had discussed the need for Phalangists to avenge Gemayel's death, he sued - with some success. A jury in Manhattan ruled in 1985 that the article was false and defamatory, but not libellous (US libel law requires proof of "actual malice").

Now, 18 years on, he is once again linked with bloodshed and misery. Since his trip to the Temple Mount last month, there has been unrest every day. Once again the world's TV screens have been filled with scenes of Palestinians hurling themselves suicidally into the fray with rocks, Molotov cocktails (and sometimes Kalashnikovs) to face Israeli soldiers, who respond first with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas, but quickly switch to live ammunition.

Contrition is a quality rare in any politician, but one might have expected Mr Sharon to be mildly subdued after this wave of carnage, even though he rejects any suggestion that it was his fault. He was, he argues, only fulfilling the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount; the riots were, in his view, part of a larger Palestinian campaign of violence, planned in advance.

His underlying motives, though, are likely to have had more to do with a desire to fortify his position at the head of the Likud party in case of a challenge from a resurgent Benjamin Netanyahu and to highlight what he considers an intolerable willingness by Mr Barak to make concessions over Jerusalem.

Territory - the need to acquire it and defend it - has been a defining principle in Sharon's political thinking. Since his appointment as Agriculture Minister in Begin's 1977 government, he has championed the cause of Jewish settlers who have steadily taken over Arab land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights.

Underpinning his policy, there is the unshakeable belief that Israel would have no chance of survival were it to retreat to within its 1967 borders in accordance with UN resolutions. When the Oslo peace drive began - with its staggered Israeli withdrawals from occupied land - he condemned it as "national suicide". "I am an extremist," he admitted in a Russian television interview in 1999. "But only on issues that relate to the life and security of Israeli people."

This conviction led him as Finance Minister to channel huge sums of money into the Jewish settlements, and to his famous appeal to settlers in 1998, as Oslo inched forward, when he told them to "run and grab the hilltops" of the West Bank. To be fair, he is not all ideologue. It was Sharon who paved the way for the 1978 Camp David accords with Egypt by advising Begin that Israel could evacuate the Sinai settlements without jeopardising its security. And it was Sharon who supervised the destruction of those settlements after a peace treaty had been signed.

He does, at least, practise what he preaches when it comes to occupying land: much to the annoyance of the Palestinians, he owns a home in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, guarded by armed Israeli border policemen and adorned by a large Israeli flag.

These days, however, he is more often found holding court in his large ranch in the Negev desert in southern Israel. His father Samuil, a Russian immigrant to British-run Palestine, was a dirt-poor farmer, who bought up the family in a shack on the plains north of the Gaza Strip. It is said that as a child, it was the job of Ariel - or rather, Arik as he is widely known - to bury the family rifle under the dung in the cowshed every time the British troops passed by. But the land has been kinder to him than to his father, as his large ranch house and swimming pool - surrounded by banana trees and palms - testify. He is fond of jamming a Stetson onto his shock of white hair and taking visitors to see the horses and sheep that roam his 1,000 acres. Sharon-grown celery and melons have made their way onto British supermarket shelves. In the details that he has filed with the Knesset, he lists his profession simply as farmer.

This, however, is only part of the image in which he casts himself. The Zionist pioneer is also an Israeli war hero, an occasionally brilliant commander who led the Israeli forces that conquered the Sinai, and later crossed the Suez canal in the 1973 Israel-Arab war. To his disappointment, he never became the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (other generals blocked his path). That did not deter him from revelling in his triumphs as a soldier when he sat down to write his autobiography. He called it The Warrior.

Age (he is now 72) has not diminished his fighting spirit and nor, it seems, has tragedy. The recent death of his Romanian-born wife, Lili, was the latest of many shadows to fall on his personal life over the years. She was the sister of his first wife, who died in a traffic accident. He also lost an 11-year-old son, who was killed while playing with a rifle that no one had realised was loaded.

But The Bulldozer has rumbled on. He has done much to get Likud back onto its feet after its defeat in May 1999. And now he is carving a path towards a place in power. Ehud Barak - another ex-general - may well forge an alliance with Sharon in an emergency government of national unity. The Prime Minister is now only capable of mustering the support of about a quarter of the Knesset, which returns from a three-month recess on Monday.

But an emergency government is not a foregone conclusion. There is strong opposition within Likud to joining forces with a premier who is regarded by the right wing as far too willing to sell out to the Palestinians. And Barak will be aware that any alliance with Sharon would be politically disastrous to himself, ending all hope of fulfilling his election promise to extract a deal from Mr Arafat and destroying his already corroded credibility with the left.

"The presence at the Government table of the standard bearer for the Jewish settlers beyond the 1967 borders will entirely change not only the image of the Government but also the image of Israel in its own eyes and in the eyes of the Arab world," warned Professor Ze'ev Sternhell in Israel's respected Ha'aretz newspaper yesterday. The Americans would be deeply uneasy, and any hope of a lasting deal with the Palestinians - always faint within the Oslo framework - would vanish. Any mention of Sharon's name to anyone close to Yasser Arafat usually causes an eruption.

His presence in government would be a "catastrophe, a disaster" for Israel and the Palestinians thundered Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian chief of Preventive Security when questioned by The Independent.

Mr Barak will want to avoid this if he can. But Sharon is circling, eager to get his feet under the cabinet table, while setting tough conditions - no return to the Palestinians of any part of Jerusalem, for instance - in his discussions with Mr Barak's negotiators. He is an ambitious man, who has long coveted the job of prime minister. An opinion poll this week showed he would get 32 per cent of the vote in a general election - eight points clear of Barak. But the statistic that will worry him more is Benjamin Netanyahu's: the same survey gave him 49 per cent against Barak's 27 per cent. A Netanyahu come-back is in the offing, and Sharon will want to act to head it off.

Reflecting on a turbulent career in The Warrior, Sharon described political life in Israel as a big wheel: "At times you are up, at times you are down." The wheel is turning again. And - despite his appalling behaviour a month ago - Arik Sharon just might be moving upwards.