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The Gamble Of a Lifetime

15 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar and Matt Rees/Jerusalem

Ariel Sharon’s house lies on Balfour Street in the heart of Jerusalem, in a gracious residential area nestled among old-growth trees. The two-story compound is the official residence of the Israeli Prime Minister, but these days it resembles a military bunker. The building is shrouded behind 20-ft.-high walls and barbed wire; an assortment of policemen, soldiers and armored vehicles stand sentry on the perimeter. In an alley adjacent to the house, visitors must hand over their belongings and pass through X-ray machines before being body searched, swabbed for explosives and interrogated about their travel histories. By the time you finally enter the residence–it took us more than an hour–you don’t need much convincing that its occupant is a marked man.

Sharon doesn’t like to spend much time here. On most nights, he slips out of the house and takes a helicopter to Sycamore Farm, 1,500 acres of pasture that he bought in the 1970s. “I live on a farm,” he declares, as we are led into the dining room of his official residence. “It’s not less beautiful there, with the cattle and the horses, and the fields and the flowers.” When Sharon speaks, you can get the sense that he wishes he were somewhere else–away from the grinding pressures of a job that in recent months has left him vilified by even some of his staunchest supporters in Israel. Yet after more than a half-century as one of the most visible, voluble and polarizing figures in the Middle East, Sharon, 77, possesses a near inexhaustible reservoir of stubborn self-belief. And so, almost as soon as he drifts into reverie about life on the farm, he snaps out of it. “In any case, I’m here,” he says, looking around the house he has fitfully occupied since his election in 2001. “And I’m not intending to leave.”

That faith is about to be put to the test. Until last year, the most intense bile directed toward Sharon emanated from the Arab world, an enmity that grew out of his actions when he was a commander in the Israeli army and that hardened after he launched a ruthless campaign against Palestinian terrorism in 2002. To his critics, the notion that Sharon might ever bring himself to make concessions to the Palestinians was laughable. They raged when, not long after Sharon ordered tanks into the West Bank in 2002, President George W. Bush called him a “man of peace.” But then the unthinkable happened: Sharon in April of last year announced plans to evacuate all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, a move that would uproot 10,000 Israelis from their homes and effectively hand the Palestinian Authority control over Gaza. Backed by the Bush Administration and a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, the disengagement plan stirred hopes for a breakthrough in the moribund peace process–an optimism that gained fresh momentum after the death of Sharon’s nemesis, Yasser Arafat, last November.

But progress rarely comes easily in this part of the world. With the evacuation of the settlements set to take place in August, Sharon confronts howling doubts–from across Israel’s political spectrum–about disengagement and what comes after it. Critics on the left accuse Sharon of giving up Gaza as a ploy to hold on to the larger settlements in the West Bank and put further agreements with the Palestinians on ice. But the most vituperative condemnations have come from Sharon’s former right-wing allies, who view the Prime Minister as a sellout who abandoned his historic support for the settlements in exchange for the international approbation that has long eluded him. Emotions run so high that many Israeli leaders warn of potential Israeli-on-Israeli violence when the evacuation takes place. A poll taken earlier this month showed that public support for the plan had sunk to 54%, from a high of 78% a year ago. Sharon is the target of assassination threats from Jewish extremists, and some members of his Likud Party privately doubt he will be the party’s candidate for Prime Minister in next year’s elections.

Nearly everywhere Sharon goes in Israel, he expects to be besieged. Appearing as the guest of honor at an annual Bible trivia competition in Jerusalem last week, Sharon was heckled by two teenagers who shouted, “Jews do not expel Jews!” when the Prime Minister got up to speak. “He knows that what he’s doing is different from what he has fought for much of his life,” says Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “I think he believes he’s right, but that doesn’t make him much happier. He’s a lonely person.”

In a Sunday-evening interview with TIME, Sharon–dressed in a dark blue suit, wearing a Breitling watch and nibbling on homemade cookies–professes little concern about the threats on his life. “I participated in all the wars and battles of this country,” he says. “I’ve been through many dangers. It doesn’t affect me at all.” Of his decision to pull out of Gaza, he says, “I felt it would be a mistake not to find a way to start a process that might bring change in the region … I had a very strong government, and I could continue with it to the end of my term. But I thought it would be a mistake not to try a political process.” And yet he rejects the idea of withdrawing Israeli forces and civilians from the West Bank once the Gaza pullout is complete, saying that he intends to limit future concessions to the Palestinians to those spelled out in the U.S.-backed road map, which outlines a series of incremental, confidence-building steps to be carried out by both sides before the start of negotiations for a final settlement of the conflict. And while Sharon believes that Arafat’s successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “understands the danger of terror,” he dismisses Abbas’ efforts to rein in Palestinian militants–despite the fact that a four-month-old halt on attacks against Israel brokered by Abbas has largely held. “It is not enough to understand, to say, to promise, to declare,” he says. “Right now we don’t see any steps that have been taken. I hope it will happen. Right now we don’t see anything.”

Such talk reveals a hard truth about Sharon: despite his reversal on the wisdom of maintaining some settlements in the occupied territories, he remains deeply skeptical about the possibilities for peace in the foreseeable future, a view forged by a lifetime of fighting wars to defend Israel from its Arab enemies. “I don’t think he’s willing or able to reach a settlement with the Palestinians,” says Yossi Sarid, a former left-wing Cabinet minister.

In person, Sharon comes off as amiable and even warm, his answers often lightened by a high-pitched, boyish giggle. But that masks an abiding wariness. He relies on an intimate circle of advisers–“enough to fit into an armored personnel carrier,” according to his spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin–who say that while he has mellowed with age, he still rises before dawn, racked with anxiety about the precarious existence of the Jewish homeland. Says Reuven Adler, one of his closest advisers: “He’s focused all the time only on what’s good for the Jews.” It’s no wonder, then, that Sharon is haunted most by the fact that so many Israelis believe that he’s about to betray them.

To appreciate the degree of bitterness that Sharon’s plan has induced in the Israeli right, consider the experience of Adiel Mintz, a settler leader who lives in Dolev, a West Bank outpost that is home to 1,000 Jews. From the early days of the settlement movement in the 1970s, Sharon was its biggest political supporter. Mintz recalls first seeing Sharon in 1975, when Mintz joined a group of young activists trying to found a West Bank settlement. As police tried to dislodge the activists, Mintz says that Sharon, then a parliamentary freshman, chased after the soldiers, shouting, “You can’t do that! You can’t expel Jews from their land!”

But while many settlers believe that the rights of Jews to populate Palestinian-dominated lands are rooted in the Bible, Mintz says that Sharon, who is not religious, saw the settlements in strategic terms: as they drained Israel’s resources, provoked Palestinian attacks and damaged Israel’s reputation abroad, Sharon began to reconsider the virtues of holding on to all of them. In May 2003, Sharon shocked the settlers when he said that “keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is the worst thing for Israel.” To Mintz, Sharon’s use of the word occupation–and its implication that he believed the settlements were illegitimate–was the first sign that Sharon was preparing to desert them. “He talks about the rights of the Jewish people,” Mintz says. “But the historical rights of the Jews to this land were never deep in his heart.”

After winning election in 2001, Sharon gave little indication that he planned to pull back at all. His first years in office were dominated by the Palestinian intifadeh, which killed 1,058 Israelis. In response, Sharon sent Israeli troops into Palestinian towns and erected a fence along much of the length of the West Bank to separate Israel from the Palestinians. Although the terrorist attacks subsided, Sharon rejected the idea of resuming peace talks with Arafat. Instead, he argued, Israel needed to withdraw to a defensible line and wait for a new, more moderate Palestinian leader to emerge. In the fall of 2003, Deputy Prime Minister Olmert gave an interview to an Israeli newspaper in which he suggested a unilateral withdrawal from much of the occupied territories–an idea that Sharon had long scorned. Sharon phoned Olmert’s Jerusalem home. “Ehud, where did I catch you?” the Prime Minister asked. “I’m at home,” Olmert said. “Is your home still in our hands,” Sharon asked, “or did you give it up to the Palestinians?” The two men laughed, but soon after, they met at Sharon’s office for Olmert to lay out his plan. “I’m with you 100%,” Sharon said.

As it turns out, Sharon’s plan doesn’t go as far. While he intends to pull all 8,500 Israeli settlers out of the 17 Gaza Strip settlements, as well as an additional 1,500 from four locations in the northern West Bank, Sharon has repeatedly insisted that Israel will never abandon the large West Bank settlement blocs that the Palestinians most despise. But Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza represents a personal acknowledgment that Israel cannot remain in the Palestinian territories indefinitely–a view, polls show, that is shared by the vast majority of Israelis. “It’s very important that the precedent of uprooting settlements is set by the father of the settlements,” says Sarid, the veteran dove. “That way, when additional withdrawals are needed, it’ll be much easier.”

That’s also why Sharon may pay a heavy political price. Sharon has tried to stamp out opposition to disengagement from within his own party by arguing that he initiated the plan to avoid having one imposed on him by Washington. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who recently resigned from Sharon’s Cabinet to protest the unilateral withdrawal, says Sharon told him last June that “even though Arafat isn’t fulfilling his commitments, the world will start pressuring us.” But Sharansky and other right-wing critics say pulling out of Gaza without demanding any concessions from the Palestinians will make Israel more vulnerable, not less, by allowing Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, to portray the withdrawal as the fruit of its attacks on settlers and soldiers in Gaza, boosting the likelihood of a renewed assault in the West Bank. Says former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Sharon rival who voted for the disengagement plan but now criticizes it: “The only way to defeat terrorism is to rob it of its hope for victory. Instead, we’ve given it renewed hope for victory.”

Sharon isn’t one to be worried about the misgivings of his political rivals. Last May, Sharon’s Likud Party rejected the disengagement plan in a referendum, but Sharon pressed ahead anyway. “He really likes to humiliate his opponents,” says Yuval Steinitz, a leading Likud legislator. While those who know him say he is adept at cultivating allies when he needs them, he has few close friends in the Israeli political establishment, and he knows it. At a Cabinet meeting last month, Sharon excused himself early, explaining that he had to attend the funeral of an aunt. He looked slowly around the table at his ministers. “Don’t get excited,” he said. “She was 100 years old. In my family, we live to an old age.” It was vintage Sharon, a joke loaded with a knowing undercurrent of accusation.

Many of Israel’s 240,000 settlers denounce the Prime Minister as a traitor. Sharon’s security advisers fear that the settlers’ civil disobedience campaign could escalate into violent clashes with soldiers evacuating the Gaza Strip in August, and could split the army. Settler rabbis have encouraged religious army reservists not to follow orders to take part in the evacuation. On Israel’s Independence Day last week, more than 50,000 people gathered in the Gaza settlements, some wearing orange T shirts with the slogan A JEW DOESN’T EXPEL A JEW.

For a rock-ribbed Zionist like Sharon, nothing cuts deeper. “These are the people he loved the most,” says Olmert. “Now that some of them view him as a traitor must be having a devastating emotional impact.” Early last year, Sharon sat in the Tel Aviv ad-agency office of his close friend Adler and shook his head as he talked about the anger of the settlers. “This decision is more difficult for me than all the battles I was in,” he said.

Sharon told TIME that withdrawing from Gaza “was the hardest decision I had to make” but reiterated his belief that it was the right one. “We’re going to do it,” he says. “I’m fully committed to it.” If the Gaza pullout is accompanied by calm–from both the settlers and the Palestinian militants–Sharon might be able to recover party support in time for next year’s elections, according to Likud leaders. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a re-elected Sharon throwing himself into the peace process that the Bush Administration hopes to revive in its second term. Sharon told TIME that he believes the Oslo agreement signed by Arafat and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 was “the deepest mistake that any government has done, bringing over here thousands of armed terrorists.” Sharon isn’t pulling out of Gaza because he has changed his view of the Palestinians; rather, he’s withdrawing precisely because he still mistrusts them, refusing to believe that Abbas and his aides are willing to take the necessary measures to keep Israel safe from terrorism. “The basic problem between ourselves and the Arabs … is that Arabs do not recognize the birthright of the Jews to have an independent country here,” he says. An aide to Abbas says that it is Sharon, not the Palestinians, who is unable to free himself from his dogmas. Without his archenemy Arafat to demonize, the aide says, Sharon seems unsure of how to deal with the Palestinian leadership. “Sharon still misses Arafat,” says the aide.

In many ways, the old warrior is more alone than ever, an isolation that has been reinforced by the security bubble in which he now lives. When Sharon held his customary Memorial Day ceremony honoring Israel’s war dead last week, there were more bodyguards than audience members. He has not remarried since his second wife Lily died in 2000. On the farm, he wakes at 5 a.m. for a security briefing; at 6, while Sharon shaves, Gissin briefs him on headlines from the day’s papers. His sons Gilad, 39, who runs Sycamore Farm, in Negev, and Omri, 41, a member of parliament, are his closest advisers. At the farm, Sharon takes comfort in his five grandchildren and the wild anemones and the Assaf sheep he breeds.

Sharon’s zealous devotion to his land reflects the role he sees for himself in Israeli life, as the single-minded guardian of Israel’s status “as the only place in the world where Jews have the right and the power to defend themselves by themselves.” While preserving the long-term viability of the Jewish state may require giving up some territory, to Sharon it does not mean giving ground. At the end of his talk with TIME, Sharon recounted his 30-year career as a soldier and reservist, during which he served in the army, the commando unit and the parachute corps. “I was badly injured twice,” he recalls. “I lost my friends. I had to take decisions of life and death, for others and myself. I understand the importance of peace better than many of the politicians who speak of peace but never had the experience I had. For me, peace should provide security to the Jewish people and Israeli citizens. If it doesn’t provide that, what kind of peace is that?” Sharon is determined never to find out. –With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem

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