As negotiators in the Middle East work furiously to broker a cease-fire agreement to end the violence that has cost nearly 100 lives, the man many Palestinians blame for inciting the riots looms ominously in the background.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has threatened to bring Ariel Sharon, Israel's famed and feared old warrior, into a national unity government if the U.S.-brokered summit in Egypt fails or the violence continues. The move would be a response to the scare tactics drummed up by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose own inflammatory actions during the past two weeks included releasing dozens of terrorists belonging to the Hamas organization from Palestinian jails.
If Sharon enters Barak's government, "our deterrence will be better," believes Efraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "In this region there's an advantage to being feared."
On paper, references to Sharon swallow up gallons of type in the indexes of even the most basic books on the Middle East: Sharon and the War of Independence; Sharon and the Six Day War; Sharon and the Yom Kippur War -- Sharon and every single Israeli-Arab conflict for that matter, up to the present deadly clashes. Sharon as agriculture minister; defense minister; housing minister; industry and trade minister; infrastructure minister; foreign minister. Sharon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which hundreds of Palestinian refugees were slaughtered in cold blood by Lebanese militiamen while the Israeli army -- under his leadership -- stood by and did nothing.
So when Sharon set foot on the white pavement of the Noble Sanctuary, the airy, tree-lined esplanade of Jerusalem's most precious mosques, for an early morning stroll two weeks ago, his visit could hardly have gone by unnoticed. Had Sharon not announced his visit days in advance, summoned the world's TV cameras and mobilized hundreds of policemen in riot gear, the sound of his footstep may still have sent shock waves crashing across the Middle East.
By now, his name has been bellowed and spat in heavy Arabic accents by hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel and the Palestinian territories; in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt; from Morocco, on the Atlantic coast, to the gulf shores of Iraq. Even the U.N. Security Council, from its Olympian cloud in New York, berated Sharon for his provocative behavior, albeit without explicitly naming him, in a resolution 10 days ago.
Whether his visit alone unleashed the torrent of stone-throwing, death and anger that is sweeping the region is questionable. Many claim the Palestinians were looking for a pretext to drop out of a dead-end diplomatic peace process and seized the prospect of war, unleashed by Sharon's visit, to advance their political struggle.
Others, including Sharon himself, admit the point of the visit was to make a bold, political statement: What Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical first and second temples. As such, it is Jewish property, and a walk on the Mount is every Jew's God-given right. (Granted, most rabbis rule that Jews should not set foot on the Mount, precisely because of its sanctity -- but Sharon is a big-picture man.)
By affirming Israel's exclusive sovereignty over the most coveted piece of real estate in the annals of Palestinian-Israeli history, Sharon was asking for trouble. But like a tragic hero, it was almost inevitable he would choose to do so.
Since he entered politics a quarter-century ago, banking on his reputation as a brilliant warrior, Sharon's actions have been motivated by one principle: seizing the offense by creating what Israelis call "facts on the ground."
In the occupied territories, that has meant building fortified settlements perched on hills like medieval city-states that dominate Palestinian towns and give the Israeli heartland more security depth. Or buying property, smack in the middle of the Jerusalem's Muslim quarter, to assert the right of Jews to live wherever they please. No matter that U.N. Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israel's troops from the territories it captured in 1967, namely the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights. The idea is to push forward, without bothering with the legalese, until the reality of Jewish life in the biblical land of Judea and Samaria is too strong to dislodge.
More than any other politician, Sharon has been the engine behind Israel's thinly disguised annexation policy. Whatever ministerial portfolio fell into his hands, Sharon made sure to direct massive state funds toward building houses, roads and water pipes that would consolidate Israel's grip in the occupied territories. Not for nothing have Israelis nicknamed Sharon "the bulldozer."
No wonder, then, that Palestinians see red when Sharon's name crops up. Thanks to Sharon's legendary drive, roughly 200,000 Israelis now live in strategically key areas of the West Bank and Gaza, protected by military outposts and connected to Israel proper with bypass roads. This heavy infrastructure has reduced the Palestinian territorial gains, stipulated by the 1993 Oslo accords, to isolated islands of small Bantustans, throttled by military checkpoints.
Israel's insistence on keeping most of these settlements intact in any final peace deal explains, in part, the Palestinian distaste for the diplomatic game at hand. Settlements and the various security zones Israel has designed to virtually strangle Palestinian towns also explain why there are so many sites of Palestinian-Israeli violence in the current clashes. Around settlements in Gaza, Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah, the Israeli army is still a visible occupying force, an irritating fish bone stuck, seemingly forever, in Palestinian throats.
It would be unfair, however, to pin the whole mess on Sharon. Settlement expansion has been an Israeli policy under both dovish and hawkish governments, from Menachem Begin's right-wing premiership to Barak's left-wing tenure.
Although many consider Sharon a sort of gladiator for a "Greater Israel," some observers insist the man is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist whose real aim is to increase his own power. They point to the fact that Sharon has been in a handful of different political parties; and it was Sharon who ordered the evacuation of the Sinai settlement of Yamit when Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty.
"Sharon has a record of relative moderation when he has power, and of extreme belligerence in the opposition," notes Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political scientist.
"No matter what happens, he needs to be at the center of it," says Zeev Chafets, a columnist at the New York Daily News who has known Sharon for 30 years. "He doesn't care so much about the shape of things. He wants to be shaping things."
And, for most of his 72 years, Sharon has. In addition to shaping the map of an embryonic Palestine to suit Israeli interests, Sharon also shaped today's political landscape by creating the Likud, one of Israel's two main parties. He helped elect the first right-wing government in 1977, and helped the baby-faced hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu come to power in 1996. Most significantly, he literally saved Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, by audaciously leading his outnumbered troops across the Suez Canal and attacking the Egyptians from the rear.
The legendary warrior was born in 1928 on a rough farm cooperative near what is now Tel Aviv, the son of Russian-Jewish pioneers in British-ruled Palestine. According to a biography by Uzi Benziman entitled "An Israeli Caesar," Ariel, known as "Arik," grew up carrying a club to keep away marauding Arabs and punish neighbors who dared pick his father's fruit. At 14, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground that later became the Israeli Defense Forces.
Stories about Sharon's ruthlessness, demonstrated in battle after battle, are legion. There was the time in the 1950s when Sharon was head of the 101 unit, a special force designed to fight Arab terrorism, and needed to launch a reprisal raid against Syria. His men were staked out on a kibbutz near the border, with orders not to move until provoked. According to the story, Sharon came running in one afternoon, saying: "Great news! They just killed the guard!"
Another telling anecdote places him in 1973, desperate to break the cease-fire agreement between Egypt and Israel, ready to stage training maneuvers to provoke an Egyptian reaction. The plan, which would have put his troops at great risk, was foiled by the army's upper echelon; but, says Chafets, "he was prepared to risk lots of lives just to get a fight going."
The Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 -- for which Sharon was found "indirectly responsible" by an official Israeli investigative commission -- was his most memorable and disastrous blunder. He was stripped of his job as defense minister and put in the political dog house. Sharon, who saw himself as Israel's next prime minister, made the most out of the minor portfolios he was given, continuing to push forward his settlement plan no matter what title he held.
But over the years, as the war he hotly pursued in Lebanon festered on, claiming more than 1,500 Israeli lives between the invasion of 1982 and last May's long-overdue troop withdrawal, Sharon's mystique as the nation's savior lost some of its shine.
But he's still here and, like the Energizer Bunny, he keeps marching on. With the death of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the retirement of President Ezer Weizman this summer, Sharon is one of the only original Israeli statesmen still around.
Sharon's only total eclipse from public life occurred as the Oslo peace accords were hammered out under the Rabin government. The election of Netanyahu brought him back into the public light. When the U.S. pressured Netanyahu to sign a new interim accord with the Palestinians at the Wye River summit in 1998, he made Sharon his foreign minister to assuage the disgruntled right. In the end, however, Sharon proved a reasonable sidekick, and convinced Netanyahu to sign a peace deal he loathed on the dotted line.
Through his brilliant army career, Sharon has built friendships across the ideological divide. (He is said to be close to the peace-loving Shimon Peres, for example.) And his charm recently spun the head of a left-wing Israeli filmmaker, Avi Mograbi, who created a documentary called "How I Learned to Overcome Fear and Love Arik Sharon."
But as he approaches his twilight years, Sharon "doesn't look like a dashing general anymore. He was a tough guy -- now he's just a fat slob," offers Chafets.
Yet the time to write Sharon's political obituary has not come. As his Temple Mount visit has shown, Sharon is willing to pay a high price not to be written off politically. Analysts believe the PR stunt was aimed at outflanking Netanyahu, his rival on the right, at a time when Netanyahu, cleared of criminal charges, was about to make a political comeback.
Alluding to the Temple Mount as "the bedrock of our faith," Sharon the non-kosher Jew, rallied the support of the religious right. The Palestinian uproar that followed has broadened his appeal even more in Israel. The past two weeks' brutal riots have made Sharon's black-and-white, us-vs.-them vision of Palestinian-Israeli relations -- forged during Israel's many wars -- fashionable again. Israelis too young to remember Sharon's martial feats know at least one thing now: Sharon is tough with Arabs; Arabs understand only force; therefore, Sharon is the one we need.
Sharon's clever maneuver, which has cost, indirectly, nearly 100 lives so far, may well succeed. To pull the country through the crisis that Sharon in large part provoked, Barak is thinking of forming a unity government in which the old general, as head of the opposition Likud Party, would be asked to play a significant role.
To Sharon, fighting the Arabs and staying in power is his life's calling. But to the outside world, placing Sharon at center stage is akin to calling on a pyromaniac to extinguish a fire.
The return of Sharon, the "Butcher of Sabra and Shatila" and the defiler of Al-Aksa mosque, will be viewed as a catastrophic strike by most Palestinians. According to Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator and one of the last moderates in town, Sharon is a "death kiss to the peace process. If General Sharon is going to be Barak's partner, we no longer have a partner in Israel."
They'll have an old cowboy to contend with instead.