Breakfast with general who blasted Lebanon

Michael Sheridan breaks bread with Ariel Sharon and hears him denounce the PLO leader he tried so hard to kill
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The Independent Online
Yasser Arafat, Nobel Peace Prize winner and electioneer; Ariel Sharon, outcast. More than a decade ago I watched the controversial Israeli Defence Minister stand, khaki-clad, on a mountainside south of Beirut while his artillery thundered across the valleys.

Now an older and bulkier General Sharon, encased in an expensive grey suit, sat across the breakfast table in a gentlemanly London hotel, complaining about his old enemy's transformation.

''I would never have signed an agreement with somebody who by any criteria is a war criminal,'' he declared. ''Arafat has more blood on his hands than anyone I know since the Nazis.'' The general paused to choose his words with care. ''I think this man should have been removed from society,'' he concluded.

If General Sharon had had his way, Yasser Arafat would have perished in the ruins of Beirut in 1982. Architect and conductor of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the general - then Menachem Begin's Defence Minister - laid down barrages and sent jet fighters on a lethal manhunt for his PLO quarry. Hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians perished.

Today he sits as a seething presence on the opposition benches of the Israeli parliament, while his old foe negotiates with Israeli ministers and, this weekend, awaits his confirmation as the first elected leader of the Palestinians.

How did the general feel as he pondered these ironies? The massive shoulders and jowls shook, the eyes twinkled. ''The war in Lebanon was a war of salvation - one of the most justified wars we ever took part in,'' he said defiantly.

But while his Likud party languished in opposition, the Labour government did a deal with Mr Arafat and the PLO, installing, in General Sharon's considered view, a terrorist regime in Jericho and Gaza as a prelude to betraying Israel by handing back the Golan Heights to Syria.

The Israeli government ''covers up'' Mr Arafat's involvement in terrorism, he contends. ''They know Arafat is mocking and laughing and joking at them. There are 41 wanted terrorists who killed and injured Israeli citizens and they are sitting in a cafe in Jericho having a nice coffee and nothing happens.'' As if prompted by this thought, he broke off from his lecture to order a coffee.

To listen to General Sharon is to hear the litany of woes of the Israeli right, dating from the ''infamous handshake'' between the late Yitzhak Rabin and Mr Arafat on the White House lawn. Israel can never trust the Arabs. Even the Egyptian newspapers print material "that Der Sturmer [a Nazi newspaper] could learn from.'' Five generations of the Sharon family had battled ''Arab terror''. Peace with Syria would be bought at too high a price. Iran is going nuclear, Iraq chemical, Turkey fundamentalist. Wherever General Sharon looks around the compass he detects a menace that he deems impossible to negotiate away.

In that, he speaks for many on the Israeli right. There is a compelling logic to his simplicities. Like Slobodan Milosevic, he possesses a brutal charm that disarms those convinced that anyone capable of ordering numerous deaths must necessarily be unpleasant in person. General Sharon is untroubled by conscience. He is first and foremost a military man whose performance in Israel's wars made him a national hero - until the Lebanese adventure, that is.

''You know, I was very much impressed by that book about your SAS commandos,'' he confided, referring to Bravo Two Zero, the Gulf war best-seller. ''The special units of your country did the most beautiful things.'' Given half a chance, the general would employ Israel's own notable capability in this field to deal with Mr Arafat - ''pre-emptive action and hot pursuit'', as he calls it.

General Sharon concedes that the assassination of Rabin by a fanatical Israeli rightist set back the cause of the Likud but he is not ready to admit that it may cost it the election later this year. ''Likud could close the gap,'' he said. ''People don't want to demonstrate in public but their worries are the same.''

Security is his mantra: ''The only ones who are asked to pay for peace are the Jews ... Can you tell me one country that gave up security measures for peace? I can tell you - the last time was at Munich in 1938.''

Ariel Sharon, invader of Lebanon, insists he is no hater of Arabs. He spends much of his time on a farm in Israel's Negev desert, not far from Mr Arafat's squalid demesne in Gaza. ''I grew up there among Arabs. As a child I never thought of Arabs as enemies. On our farm Jews and Arabs worked together and were sitting around the table together,'' he recalled. ''We would just like to live in peace - not rest in peace.''