Sharon’s WarsBy JAMES BENNET
t the point where the twisting road from Jerusalem leaves the hills and straightens out on Israel's coastal plain, you turn south at Latrun junction for the drive to Ariel Sharon's ranch. On a rise to your left, set in olive groves, is the red-roofed Trappist monastery of Latrun. It has always been something of a surprise to me how lightly Israel's landscape, if not its people, wears its heavy past. From a car rushing along this modern highway, the only clue to the centuries of violence that envelop the Latrun hill is a limestone ruin on the crest, above the monastery. It is the remnant of a 12th-century Crusader fort. From that height, Christian soldiers, like the Romans long before them and the Arab Legion long after, controlled the routes from the Mediterranean coast and from Egypt to Jerusalem.
Sharon nearly died here. As a 20-year-old platoon leader, he joined in an ill-planned assault to take the hill and open the road to Jerusalem during the Arab-Israel war of 1948, the Israeli War of Independence. In a wadi barely visible from the road, where rushes now separate bright green vineyards from golden-brown fields of grain, he was pinned down for hours with his men. He was shot in the stomach and thigh. His radio was destroyed, and he did not hear the order to withdraw. It was only when he saw Arab soldiers on the hills behind him that he realized he and his remaining men had been left behind, alone.
Speaking with Sharon at his ranch one Sunday evening last month, I asked him if, when his motorcade passed by Latrun these days, he saw the wheat fields or the battle. He thought about the battle, he replied. ''It was not wheat, it was barley,'' he said. ''And it was a very hot day. And all around, it was burning.'' The fields were on fire. When he realized the predicament and gave the order to retreat -- to flee -- only 4 of 35 men were alive and unwounded. Sharon, bleeding from his own wounds, felt too weak to make it out.
''I was dead thirsty,'' he said. He was speaking English, a language in which he is not perfect but makes himself pungently clear. ''I was so thirsty that I felt I'll not have power to, let's say, make this effort. Let's say it was the major effort that I've ever done.''
Sharon dragged himself to the bottom of the gully, where the blood of the wounded mingled with the green scum on the muck. ''I hesitated for one minute,'' he said. ''Then I put my mouth into this mud there, and I drank -- I don't know -- I would say a very big quantity of this red-green mud.''
He began to chuckle, not bitterly but warmly, with real mirth, as he did at other points in our conversation when speaking of something particularly dire. He was leaning back in a cushioned yellow armchair, dressed casually in sandals with Velcro straps, slacks and a blue shirt with the top two buttons open and the sleeves rolled up. ''When I pass there, first of all, when I say I look at that, I remember what happened there -- this small story. I know it's a terrible thing. Because people will read it and they will say, 'Look, he drinks also blood.''' He began to laugh outright, shaking in his chair. ''But I felt that I'll not be able to overcome that if I'll not drink this water there -- if I may call it water.''
I was struck again by an impression I had when I first passed through the layers of security and rounded the door into Sharon's living room. After all the anxious guards with guns, I found him sitting there quietly by himself, an overstuffed man in an overstuffed chair, an old man alone with his many memories.
So he might have been. It was not so long ago that Sharon and his memories of blood were the stuff of history and hysterical opposition to everything that seemed hopeful -- to the Oslo peace process, to the negotiations that brought Palestinians to the verge of statehood and Israelis to the verge of the safe, welcomed society they dreamed of.
When the Palestinian uprising brought his view of reality back into fashion, Sharon was ready. It was his chance to further, if not finish, the job he began after Latrun: defining Israel's boundaries and its very identity.
It may be that nations need illusions to make peace. It may be, indeed, that illusions are among the most precious things we have. But Sharon does not believe a Jewish state can afford them. Today, his story has become Israel's story, and today's Israel -- with its won't-be-fooled-again attitude about any warm peace with Arabs -- is Sharon's Israel.
Sharon can plausibly lay claim to having shaped his state's geographic and moral terrain and international image -- for better or for worse -- more than any other Israeli leader since David Ben-Gurion. There is no single American figure to compare him with. He is Andrew Jackson, George Patton, Robert Moses.
n the 1950's, Sharon trained and led the commandos who established Israel's reputation for ruthless reprisals; in 1967, he won one of the most sensational battles of the Six-Day War; and in 1973, he envisioned and led the crossing of the Suez Canal that helped end the Yom Kippur War. He created, in 1973, the rightist Likud Party he now leads, which broke Labor's grip on Israel's governments; he led Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which formed and scarred a generation; he masterminded Israel's settlement movement, systematically planting enclaves of Jews among the Palestinians of the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Now, as prime minister, he is building a barrier against West Bank Palestinians that is the single biggest change in the land since the Six-Day War. And he is trying to tear down some of the Israeli settlements he built in Gaza and the West Bank -- something no Israeli prime minister has ever done. He is not doing this because he sees a path to imminent peace. Capitalizing on a White House that has chosen to view the world much as he does, he is trying to gird Israel for a conflict -- not merely with the Palestinians -- whose end he cannot foresee.
I asked him if he thought Israel's war of independence had ever ended. After all, I said, the world's attitude toward terrorism had changed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the American Army was now parked on the other side of Jordan in Iraq. More than half a century after Latrun, Israel, now a nuclear power, did not seem in danger of being driven into the sea.
Sharon noted that unlike in 1948, Israel now has peace agreements with two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. ''But these are agreements between leaders,'' he said. ''There is no peace between nations or peoples. And the main problem is that the Arabs are not ready yet -- I don't know if it will be in the future, I don't know -- but they are not ready to recognize the birthright of the Jewish people to have an independent Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people.'' His voice rose as he delivered that last thought.
''On this issue,'' he said, ''I don't see yet any change whatsoever.''
As much or more than his predecessors, Sharon shucked the traditions of the Jewish Diaspora to develop a new Jewish warrior culture. In place of fear and the ghettos of Europe, he worked to substitute military power and an almost mythic territorial ambition. In place of religion and the prayerful dream of Jerusalem, he posited ethnic pride and possession of the land.
Sharon is not a religious man. Outside of his own experiences, his points of reference tend to be biblical, but their applications are territorial and tribal rather than spiritual. When I asked what it meant to him to live as a Jew, he spoke not about God but about history and place names: Jerusalem, Hebron, Mount Tabor -- names from the Bible still used for the same places today.
''It's an unbelievable story,'' he said. ''Because I think all of those old nations that were then, disappeared. Don't exist anymore. The Jews exist.''
Then he gave me an idea of what he sees in the landscape beyond his own battles. Referring to one of the ancient tribes of Israel, he said, ''When I travel in, let's say, the mountains of the tribe Binyamin -- say the area of Ramallah or west of Ramallah -- you know, I used to close my eyes a little bit, so you don't see the electrical grids and all these things.'' He chuckled, this time at an obviously pleasant thought. ''In my imagination, I always felt that I see those warriors of the tribe of Binyamin, you know, with spears, running there on those terraces.''
''And you know, those terraces that you see there -- terraces were not built by Arabs. These terraces are old Jewish terraces.''
The restaurant had a mural of bygone American celebrities: Bogart, Elvis, Laurel and Hardy. The woman at the next table had a purse embroidered with roses and the message ''Things grow with love.'' On the patio beneath my table glinted a stray, shiny bullet. Pinned to a nearby bulletin board was an advertisement that used a likeness of Abraham Lincoln to flog a 2,700-square-foot home. Sharon may have been planning to dismantle settlements in Gaza, but up the hill the cranes were working away, building new houses. The new development was called Ariel Heights.
Beyond Ariel's fence, just a couple of hundred yards and a galaxy away, was the Palestinian town of Salfit. I once cowered behind a gravestone there when Israeli soldiers at a post beside Ariel opened fire over the heads of mourners at a funeral.
''Can you imagine Israel without fear?'' my lunch companion, Dror Etkes, asked. He wondered why a country with nuclear weapons could see its morale collapse ''every time a bus explodes.'' He marveled that Israel could feel so powerful and so vulnerable at the same time, but he knew the reasons, the history of pogroms and genocide, well enough.
That was the key to understanding Sharon's appeal, Etkes said. ''He recognized the deepest pathology of the Israeli people,'' he went on to say. ''He understands the fears.''
Etkes, who is 36 and wears a small gold loop through one ear, may be Ariel Sharon's worst nightmare. He is an Israeli, a Jew and a former paratrooper, and he knows the hills and wadis of the West Bank maybe as well as Sharon. But he concluded from his military service that the occupation was destroying Zionism and Israel, and now he bird-dogs the growth of settlements for the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now.
Sulfurous redoubts like the tiny Jewish settlement in Hebron and the ragged hilltop outposts are the soul of the settlement movement. But its body and brain are in sunny Ariel. The zealots get most of the media attention, and they draw far more of the Palestinian attacks. They distract the world, in other words. Meanwhile, Ariel, with its college and its emerald soccer field, its police headquarters and its commuters to Tel Aviv, expands steadily, with little notice paid. It is Ariel and the other giant settlements like it that Sharon is bidding to retain forever by giving up Gaza. The big blocks protect the strategic heights and the priceless aquifers beneath them that he most cares about, and they wall off Jerusalem. They also would break up any Palestinian state into pieces that could be easily monitored, and if necessary controlled, by Israel. From Ariel Heights, you can look to the east and see the pattern. Outposts are growing on each hilltop to link a zigzagging chain of Israeli settlement across the West Bank to the Jordan Valley. Sharon would like to hold onto half the West Bank, one of his top aides said, but does not expect to be able to keep that much in the end.
Etkes maintains that Israel is creating apartheid in the West Bank. Jews and Arabs live in parallel communities there now, with separate and unequal road networks, legal systems, opportunities and rights and with little contact with each other. ''Ariel is the most Israeli town in Israel,'' he said with considerable asperity. When I asked what he meant, he leaned back in his chair and spread his arms to point in each direction. ''The ignorance of people -- the full ignorance of what's going on 150 or 200 meters away on either side, living in a mental, cultural ghetto in the Middle East, not knowing who your neighbors are.''
But for most Israelis now -- as always for Sharon -- Etkes has it backward. It is not that they do not know their neighbors; it is that they know them all too well. Now the typical Israeli response to any suggestion of a negotiated solution is a verbal roll of the eyes: you don't understand, they say; this is the Middle East.
For Palestinians, Oslo failed because Israel dragged its feet in ceding authority in the West Bank, while settlements there doubled in population to more than 200,000. For them, the Israeli offer in the Camp David talks of the summer of 2000 was a ploy, a stinting proposal to make the Palestinians look rejectionist. (The Palestinian leadership, of course, obliged.) For Palestinians, Sharon detonated this uprising with the provocative visit he made on Sept. 28, 2000, in the company of hundreds of policemen and soldiers, to the man-made plateau in Jerusalem that Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews the Temple Mount.
The Israeli version is, if anything, engraved more deeply: the Palestinians -- the Arabs -- never wanted peace. The conflict is not about Oslo, not about settlements, not even about the occupation that began in 1967. It is about any Jewish state in the region. To Israelis, Yasir Arafat walked away from Camp David because he wanted, and wants, to destroy Israel, not build a state beside it. Not only the suicide bombers but also the enduring chill of the quarter-century peace with Egypt undermined the premises of Israel's left, enabling Sharon to seize the political center and, through constant maneuvering, to hold it. Even a dove like Etkes has doubts that a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would necessarily mean peace. ''If it turns out to be a zero-sum game,'' he said after we left Home Pizza for Jerusalem, ''I prefer war from two sides of a wall to intensive occupation.''
The last Labor politician to take on Sharon and his vision of the conflict was Amram Mitzna, a former general and successful mayor of Haifa. A week before Sharon dealt Labor its most humbling defeat ever in national elections, in January of last year, I heard Mitzna outline his program in Haifa to a crowd of thousands of soldiers preparing to muster out of the army. Mitzna's agenda was quite close to the one Sharon is pursuing now, with two crucial differences: he favored immediate negotiations with the Palestinian leadership -- meaning Arafat -- along with an immediate withdrawal from Gaza. The second crucial difference was that Mitzna is not Sharon. As the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi once told me, one reason Israelis elected Sharon initially was their faith that he would make concessions out of only absolute necessity, not out of ideology. ''When Sharon budges, that means no one can stand against it,'' Ezrahi said.
That night in Haifa when Mitzna made his case, the soldiers were not impressed. In Sharon's Israel, the young accuse the old of being dreamers. ''He has a vision,'' a soldier named Asaf Mentzer, then 22, told me, ''but it's not realistic in the Middle East. The political history of Israel shows that everyone who wants to take a step toward peace -- like Mitzna -- fails.''
he failure of Oslo sent shock waves through the army, which is Israel's most politically and socially important institution, and prompted it to overhaul its own approach to the Palestinians. Like the rest of the society, the Israel Defense Forces are changing anyway, drawing their leadership less from the evaporating pool of secular kibbutz members and more from the rightist national religious community. But the army had bought into Oslo, and some generals later concluded that they had failed in their most basic mission, protecting Israel. It is a mistake they will not make again.
''I was one of those stupid guys,'' Brig. Gen. Eival Gilady said with a wry grin over dinner in May in Tel Aviv. Gilady, until recently the head of the Israel Defense Forces' strategic planning division, now advises the government on security and international matters. He still lives on his kibbutz, Cabri, in the Galilee. He has a boyish face and an easy smile beneath iron gray hair. The army considered him one of its most visionary thinkers. He is the intellectual father of the details of Sharon's disengagement plan.
As Oslo fell apart, Gilady was studying the essence of the conflict in a search for a way out. He came to the conclusion that there might not be one. ''This is an inconclusive conflict,'' he said. ''It's a totally different phenomenon. And it's not just an Israeli problem.'' Looking at the second half of the 20th century, Gilady counted 160 wars. Fully 131 of them, he said, were not classic wars between states but conflagrations like those that consumed Bosnia, Rwanda and Chechnya. ''Is it religious?'' he asked. ''Economic? Ethnic? I don't know. But there is a strong element of ideology, and you cannot bring them to an end quickly like a war you end with an army. It's a conflict you have to manage for a long time.'' To do that, he said, ''you need legitimacy.'' First and foremost, the public must see the army as acting in a legitimate way, but the world must also back it up. The question was how to preserve that legitimacy while protecting Israel.
A negotiated peace with Arafat had come to seem impossible to Gilady, but leaving things as they were seemed untenable. ''I didn't think time was on our side,'' he said. The Palestinian population was growing at more than 5 percent a year, meaning Arabs would be the majority in Israel and the occupied territories within a few years. Israel might have to choose between its Jewish identity or its democracy. Further, the army's tactics -- forced upon it, in Gilady's view -- were only exacerbating the conflict. ''The more we fight, the worse it is,'' he said. ''The anger, the frustration, increases.''
Gilady saw disengagement without an agreement as a way out of the trap for both peoples. As he helped map the route of the Israeli barrier, he found a way to keep around 75 percent of the settlers on the Israeli side while holding on to what he estimates to be about 11 percent of the West Bank. He insisted that the barrier was a reversible security measure, but he sees it as sending political messages: one, to the Palestinians, that there is a price in land to continuing the conflict; two, to the settlers, that there is less of a future for them on the Palestinian side of the line.
The army has mapped out Jewish and Arab enclaves on the West Bank, and the map is starting to come into focus on the ground. Israel has begun digging tunnels beneath Israeli-controlled zones to connect Palestinian areas with one another. The West Bank is shaping up as a Habitrail landscape of flyovers, underpasses and fenced enclosures teasing apart knotted populations in a cage slightly smaller than Delaware. Yet Gilady says he hopes that as Israeli checkpoints disappear from between the Palestinian areas, the anger will begin to ease and, eventually, peace will become possible. He calls this approach ''transportation contiguity'' or, in a koan for a region that generates very few of them, ''everything flows.''
There is a deeper game. Resolving the basic asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians -- one side has a state; the other does not -- may be a goal of Middle East peacemakers, but it is also one of the greatest obstacles to achieving it. The Israelis have a government capable of enforcing an agreement, but the Palestinian Authority, created by Oslo to do that job, has not proved strong enough. Israel is trying to draw in Egypt and Jordan to serve as proxy states and, in effect, as guardians for the Palestinians. The plan drawn up by the security men -- though not endorsed by Sharon or his government -- even calls for Egypt eventually to cede land in the Sinai to the Palestinians in exchange for the territory Israel would gain in the West Bank. Egypt would gain a tunnel linking it by land to Jordan. That is a sign of how advanced, or maybe how wistful and abstract, the military establishment's thinking has become.
At its core, what the plan reveals is how utterly the army has come to reject the logic of Oslo. Oslo posited a peace agreement as the surest route to Israeli security. Peace would encourage joint ventures between the two peoples; it would give the Palestinians a path to a state and turn them against the militants who jeopardized it. Palestinians say that that proposition was never really tested. But Gilady does not see it that way. ''It turned out to be the other way around,'' he said. ''Not that peace will bring security but that security will bring peace.''
With that, the army had come to the same conclusion that one of its most storied generals reached many years ago.
y interview with Sharon was initially scheduled for a Thursday afternoon in Jerusalem at his official residence. As I arrived, Sharon was still at his office half a mile away. But the security men in blue smocks were dashing about with their compact submachine guns. There was something suspicious about the motor scooter parked across the street. The bomb squad had been called in.
I did not think much of it. False alarms happen all the time in Jerusalem. The previous Sunday night, outside my own home, the bomb squad had pulled up and used a remote-controlled robot to fire several shotgun blasts into what proved an innocent object.
But this alarm was very different. Sharon was delayed. Then the interview was canceled. Raanan Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, told me that a bomb had been found in the scooter, primed to be detonated remotely when Sharon's convoy passed. Later, I learned that the streets around the residence had been blocked off and that the Shin Bet security service, in a highly unusual move, had also thrown a security cordon around the prime minister's office. Sharon was spirited away in a helicopter to a secret refuge.
Yet there was not a word about the incident later in the Israeli media, which would normally cover such a disruptive alarm even if it was false. Four days later, as we drove together to the rescheduled interview, Gissin insisted that it was a false alarm after all, caused by a bicycle and not the scooter I saw the security men examining through binoculars.
The head of Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, says that Sharon now faces a very real threat from extremist Jews. Shin Bet has tightened security around him. Like the army, Shin Bet is trying to learn the lessons of what it sees as a terrible institutional failure: the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally by an Israeli Jew.
I was thoroughly searched before our car was permitted to pass the first steel gate into Sharon's Sycamore ranch, named for a thick stand of the trees, dark green in the dusk. The entrance is like an air lock: the first gate must close behind you before a second inner steel gate rises. ''They've made him more a prisoner than ever,'' Gissin murmured as we pulled forward. Just ahead of us was a large pen holding hundreds of sheep, maybe the safest sheep in the world. A few geese wandered across our path.
The ranch is said to be the largest in Israel, but the house itself is a simple, homey affair. To be in Sharon's home is to be reminded -- not unintentionally -- that this most polarizing of world figures, this cartoon of Jewish strength or Jewish cruelty, is, after all, a person, a work of depth and complexity, satisfactions and sorrows, maybe more than his share. Sharon's first wife, Gali, died in a car crash in 1962. Five years later, just after the Six-Day War, their 10-year-old son, Gur, was accidentally killed. He was playing with an antique shotgun that a friend had brought Sharon from the newly occupied West Bank. No one knew it was loaded. Sharon heard the shot and found the boy, who died in his arms.
By then, Sharon had married his first wife's sister, Lily, and had two more sons. Lily Sharon died of cancer in March 2000, before Sharon was elected prime minister. Her influence lingers at the ranch. In the hallway, bridles for horses are arranged along the banister. In the living room, a bronze statue of a bull stands on one table and two bronze dancers pivot on another. The only nod to martial life that I noticed was a charcoal drawing on one wall of a line of weary-looking soldiers on patrol. ''What a mensch'' read an embroidered pillow on one couch. In another room, one of Sharon's grandchildren wailed while he spoke. An armed Shin Bet guard stood just out of Sharon's line of sight in the hallway, watching me through the interview.
''All my life, I defended Jews, and suddenly I find myself, you know, being defended against Jews,'' Sharon said. ''I have been under the security organizations', I would say, protection, but that was against Arabs.''
Sharon was preparing to meet the next day with his old ally Shimon Peres, the inevitable, indefatigable Labor Party leader, for talks about forming a new coalition government. His rightist coalition was cracking under the strain of his disengagement plan. Far-right ministers who hoped Sharon was bluffing or who thought they could restrain him were realizing he would not be stopped, and they were starting to bolt.
Sharon was looking to form at least a temporary coalition government anchored by Likud, Labor and Shinui, the centrist, antireligious party led by the 72-year-old Tommy Lapid. It would be a government of old lions -- Peres turns 81 today -- members of the generation that founded the state making a last attempt to secure it. But Sharon does not expect that coalition to last. A bloc of Likud, a party that officially opposes any Palestinian state, is in growing revolt. His aides say he expects to have to go to elections in the next year, before he can embark on his plan and begin uprooting the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Even if he fails in his plan or falls from office, Sharon has already taken a sledgehammer to a cornerstone rationale of the settlement movement. The father of the settlements has declared that remaining in Gaza weakens Israel. Now he is contemplating nothing less than an Israeli political realignment, one that would give political expression to the chastening of both the left and the right: it would accept the possibility of some limited form of Palestinian state but also the improbability of any peace with the Palestinians. This might mean a redefinition of Likud or the creation of a new centrist party. It does not matter to Sharon. He does not confuse means with ends. Armies, political parties and even settlements are merely tools.
As a young officer, Sharon was used by men like Moshe Dayan, who wanted to shield themselves politically and diplomatically from the consequences of their own vague orders, orders of the who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-archbishop variety. Sharon understood and accepted his role, and he learned from it. He is an instrumentalist, a user, and ruthless. He is accustomed, after all, to the necessity of sending men to their deaths. He admired, but never shared, the religious, totalizing zeal of the settlers he dispatched to the West Bank and Gaza. He seized on these zealots because he saw that the pioneering, secular Zionist tradition that had brought his own parents to settle the land of Israel was fading. Now he is quite willing to disappoint some of these religious settlers to hold onto the land he really cares about. When I asked if it pained him to hear himself condemned by Jewish settlers in Gaza, he said: ''Look, it's not an easy thing. But I decided that is the right step that should be taken. I thought about that solely. I evaluated the situation. I believe that I found the right way, how to serve the interests of Israel.''
he why of it -- the reason Sharon is taking these personal and political chances -- is a mystery only to those who have not bothered to listen to him. He is quite clear about his reasons.
In the 1950's, when Sharon was training Israel's first paratroopers, he made a study of ambushes. What was the best way to react? The answer was characteristic of Sharon: attack immediately -- regain, and retain, the initiative. As the cruel stalemate with the Palestinians wore on, Sharon feared that Israel risked losing the initiative. ''I worried about the vacuum here,'' he said. Israeli and Palestinian doves were drawing up plans for deep concessions on both sides to demonstrate that there were pragmatists, potential partners, seeking a way out of the conflict. Sharon says he does not believe any partner exists. But he feared that if Israel was not moving on its own by pulling back from Gaza, the world would impose its own solution. ''I saw that the pressures will be hard pressures on Israel,'' he said. ''And I felt that even the United States will not be able, I would say, not to impose a plan on Israel if Israel is not making even the slightest step forward.''
Sharon also feared the consequences of what had been, in fact, one of his own policies, Israel's attacks on the governing Palestinian Authority. With the help of foreign governments, the Palestinian Authority had taken over some tasks, like providing schooling, once performed by the occupying power -- and Sharon does not want those tasks back. ''I did not think Israel should take upon itself the health and education and welfare and labor of three million Palestinians,'' he said. There are about 3.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Sharon also understood, but did not mention to me, the political reality: Israelis might not believe they could negotiate a peace, but they also did not want their children to continue dying to protect a few settlers in Gaza. Sharon initially opposed a West Bank barrier, but he embraced it and turned it to his advantage when it became politically unstoppable. Sharon has fixed goals, but he freely changes tactics. ''You cannot defeat Jews,'' Sharon told me while speaking of the settlers. ''You can maneuver them. You maneuver them; they maneuver you. I would say it's endless maneuvers.''
There was no plan under which Gaza would remain part of Israel, Sharon said. ''I do not see a future for Jewish life there,'' he said.
Last, and crucially, Sharon glimpsed an opportunity: to perpetuate Israel's hold on the parts of the West Bank that mean the most to him.
As he told the newspaper Ha'aretz in early April,
he saw a chance to ''do the things I want and
to get an American commitment.'' Sharon did
not want to negotiate concessions from the Palestinians. He wanted concessions
from the Americans, in the form of a reversal of decades of policy in
the Middle East. In exchange for Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan and evidence
of some movement in the Middle East,
Whether arising from hubris, hard experience or superior judgment, Sharon's ferocious pursuit of his own visions for Israel and the region previously brought him into collision with American administrations. While struggling to negotiate an end to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Philip Habib, Ronald Reagan's special envoy, concluded that Sharon was ''the biggest liar this side of the Mediterranean'' and a man whose ''word was worth nothing.'' For his part, Sharon saw the Americans as pursuing an overly ambitious agenda, seeking to use Lebanon to solve problems throughout the Middle East.
It is not that Sharon objects to complex plans; he just prefers his own. As a general, Sharon clashed constantly with his superiors, but he drew up complicated battle plans that limited the flexibility of his commanders in the field and centralized authority in himself. That pattern reappeared in Lebanon, and it is playing out again today. In Lebanon, Sharon set a vaulting plan in motion with an invasion he sold to the Israeli public as limited, intended to clear the P.L.O. away from Israel's northern border. Then as now, he had several aims in mind. He wanted to crush the P.L.O, install a Christian-dominated government that he believed would make peace with Israel and bring forth what he envisioned as a tractable Palestinian leadership in the West Bank that would accept Israeli rule. The plan blew up in his face with the assassination of his chosen Lebanese president and then the massacre by Christian militiamen of Palestinians in two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila. An Israeli commission of inquiry later assigned Sharon indirect responsibility for the massacres.
In Bush, Sharon has occasionally feared he faced another president with an overambitious plan for the Middle East that might conflict with his own agenda. Three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Sharon gave a speech warning that the United States risked appeasing terrorists at Israel's expense the way Europe appeased Hitler by sacrificing Czechoslovakia in 1938. It was meant as a shot across Bush's bows. ''What worried me was what might be,'' Sharon said when he called me two days later for a brief interview in which he expressed regret five times. It was my first clue that for Sharon words are also tactics, with regret deployed as easily as bluster.
few months later, Sharon demonstrated to Bush that he did mean what he said when he declared he would never compromise what he considered Israeli security. As a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings reached a crest in March 2002, Sharon began Israel's largest offensive since Lebanon, sending ground forces sweeping through the West Bank. Bush demanded an immediate halt, but the army kept going. It was Bush, not Sharon, who gave way.
To Bush's most ambitious attempt to solve the conflict, the so-called road map to peace, Sharon applied what Israelis know well as his ''yes, but'' strategy. He did not rebuff the administration. He agreed to the plan, but then interpreted it in his own way. He attached conditions that changed it substantively. There was a lot that Sharon liked in the plan, including its endorsement of his demands for thoroughgoing Palestinian reform. But its timetable -- three years to a state of Palestine and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace -- was nowhere near Sharon's. Sharon's aides also did not think that the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, could succeed in curtailing Arafat's power and stopping the intifada. Israel, it should be said, took no real risks to help him. When Abbas failed and quit last fall, he blamed both Sharon and Arafat for undermining him. Sharon still has not removed the settlement outposts that he promised Bush more than a year ago he would dismantle under the road map.
Sharon built settlements in the first place because he rejected the idea of any quick solution to the conflict and wanted to make one impossible to achieve. ''I thought it had to become impossible to give a fast, easy, clear-cut solution, because no solution of this sort could accord with the reality,'' he wrote in his 1989 autobiography, ''Warrior.''
It is not that Sharon does not want peace. He often says he wants peace more than other politicians who have not seen so much suffering and death. But Sharon does not put his trust in treaties. He still likes to quote words of advice he received from his mother in the early 80's, when he was negotiating with the Egyptians: ''Do not trust them! You cannot trust a piece of paper!'' When I asked him how he described Arabs as a nation, he asked me how long I had lived in the region. I replied three years. ''I tell you it will be hard for you to understand that, and I must tell you that even for me -- and I was born here -- it's hard to understand,'' he said before pausing, evidently for emphasis. His voice rose: ''This area here, it's an empire of lies. It's an empire of lies. They look into your eyes and lie. It's very hard for you to understand. It's very hard for us to understand. But that is the situation here. Therefore, you have to be careful. Here, in this region here, declarations, speeches, words, are worthless.''
Sharon does want a peace agreement. But he wants the agreement that he wants -- a so-called long-term interim agreement. It is a kind of standstill arrangement. He wants the two sides to go to separate corners, cool off over many years and only then begin talking about the big issues, like Jerusalem. No credible Palestinian leader could agree to such a deferral of the Palestinian national dream. But Sharon may have picked his historical moment well enough, and maneuvered his allies and enemies skillfully enough, to impose it.
In the 50's and 60's, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, took a shine to the brash leader of Israel's commandos. Much to the irritation of Sharon's superior officers, Ben-Gurion would invite him for private chats in his office or even his home. Ben-Gurion's papers reflect a fatherly interest in Sharon, whom he referred to as Arik and whose roguishness both charmed and worried him. During this period, Ben-Gurion was in his 60's and then 70's, Sharon in his 20's and then 30's. Their chats followed a tender pattern. Sharon would describe and sometimes defend his exploits. He would complain about his superiors. While lending a sympathetic ear, Ben-Gurion would gently relay to Sharon some of those officers' concerns, and his own, about Sharon's behavior. Prodded by Israel's white-haired founder, Sharon would admit that he lacked discipline and even that he lied, sometimes to Ben-Gurion himself.
''An original, visionary young man,'' Ben-Gurion noted on Jan. 29, 1960. ''Were he to rid himself of his faults of not speaking the truth and to distance himself from gossip, he would be an exceptional military leader.''
n Nov. 24, 1958, Ben-Gurion recorded an unusual encounter with Sharon. Sharon was just back from 13 months of military study in England. ''This was the first time he met with Jews, and he is anxious about the future of our relations with them,'' Ben-Gurion wrote in his journal. By ''Jews,'' he meant non-Israeli Jews living in the Diaspora. Born and raised in what is now Israel, Sharon had not encountered such Jews before.
''The Jews in England are not accepted in the English clubs and golf courses, and they have to situate themselves in Jewish institutions,'' Ben-Gurion wrote, recounting Sharon's impressions. Sharon, he continued, was astonished that these Jews nevertheless did not feel ''any personal connection of any kind with Israel.''
It was an insight with a great impact on Sharon. He still speaks about it. When I quoted the passage from Ben-Gurion, it triggered an 18-minute monologue about his fears for the survival of the Jews. ''I have many worries, but something that really bothers me is what will happen with the Jews in the future -- what will happen to them in 30 years' time, in 300 years' time, and with God's help, 3,000 years' time.'' He laughed. ''But I don't think that then I'll have to take care of that.''
Returning to his stay in England, he recalled how British officers aimed their anti-Semitism at British Jews but not at Israelis. ''It was a kind of an attempt to draw a distinction between Israel and Israelis and 'their own Jews,' I would say -- Jews in the Diaspora,'' he said.
''That worried me,'' he continued. ''It worried me. I didn't like it.'' He added, ''I felt it's going to be a danger.''
That is classic Sharon: the sweep of the sense of duty, the depth of the tribal consciousness, the sensitivity of the antennae to any threat, maybe real, maybe merely perceived. He regards Israel as a worldwide Jewish project, and he did not want to see any divergence in the Israeli and Jewish identities.
After a few years, Sharon thought the problem went away. ''I would say the European countries -- maybe others as well -they started to treat us as Jews,'' he said. In other words, the danger receded as European Christians began treating Israeli Jews with the same prejudice with which they treated Jews at home. It seemed an odd source of comfort.
Sharon plowed on. A Jew, he said, can only ''live as a Jew'' in Israel. There were many fewer mixed marriages, he said. ''All the time I worry -- and I check it all the time -- that Jews, I would say, might disappear,'' he said. That is, the threat to Jews' survival exists if they are physically in danger or not. If they are safe and welcomed where they are, they are threatened with assimilation.
Sharon explained that he regularly told Jews in the Diaspora that if Israel were to grow weaker or disappear, ''the Jews around the world will not be able to have the lives that they are having now.''
Then he summed up: ''So, all that, I would say, brings me to think that the main goal of the state of Israel is immigration.'' He wants to bring another million Jews to Israel in the next 15 years.
Sharon views Jews around the world and in Israel as under threat from rising anti-Semitism. Two days before I saw him, the World Court in The Hague condemned as illegal those segments of Israel's new barrier that stand inside the West Bank. Sharon saw the decision as pure evil. I asked what he thought it would take for Israel to be fully accepted in the world. ''Not to exist as an independent state, maybe,'' he shot back. ''Look, it's a Jewish state inhabited by Jews. Not patronized. Maybe the world would have accepted patronized Jews.'' A week later, he declared that the ''wildest anti-Semitism'' was on the rise in France, and he urged French Jews to move immediately to Israel.
t may be that the world is blind to the anti-Semitism that feeds its criticism of Israel. But Sharon appears blind -- maybe willfully so -- to the rising anti-Israeli-ism in what he sees as anti-Semitism. The World Court did not rule against Jews. It ruled against Israel, and the fact is that the barrier is built partly on occupied land.
Despite the danger Sharon sees for Jews abroad, new immigrants are barely trickling to Israel -- 24,652 came last year. And more may be leaving Israel each year. (There are no hard numbers.) Sharon's associates point out that no one predicted in the 1980's that nearly a million Jews from the former Soviet Union would arrive in the 1990's. But to reach those levels Israel will need a large contribution from the only country other than itself with five million Jews -- the United States -- and there is little hint of that.
The divergence Sharon glimpsed in England and came to fear half a century ago is becoming obvious. A clear Israeli identity has emerged, and it is steadily drifting from the identity of Jews in the United States and Europe. ''We're moving from being brothers to being cousins,'' one of Sharon's close advisers acknowledged, speaking about the Americans. ''And in the next generation we will be distant cousins with some sense of shared history.''
Sharon bears much of the responsibility for bequeathing Israel an image that unsettles and distances Jews and non-Jews overseas. As with so much else, this was a pattern he set early. One raid that Ben-Gurion called him in to explain was his attack in 1953 on the village of Qibbiya in the West Bank, then ruled by Jordan. Sharon was retaliating for the killing of an Israeli woman and her two toddlers. He later said that he and his men believed that the 45 houses they blew up over several hours were empty. But 69 Arabs were killed, about half of them women and children. The killings brought Israel its first condemnation from the United Nations Security Council. (In his autobiography, Sharon wrote that Ben-Gurion told him that the raid would serve as a warning to other Arabs.)
Then and now, Sharon's use of force may have stirred some who longed for Jewish power and reassured many that Israel would remain a shelter in an unpredictable world -- the only place, as Sharon puts it, where ''Jews can defend themselves by themselves.'' But it also dismayed those who hoped Israel might be a moral beacon, or just that it would become a normal nation accepted like any other.
At the same time, the West is where Israel sees its future. This is the ultimate meaning of the withdrawal from Gaza and the barrier. The disengagement plan is an attempt to turn Israel's back on its region and reach westward toward the European Union and the United States. From long before Oslo, Israelis dreamed of integration with their neighbors into a new Middle East. Now they are willing to wait. Maybe the Palestinians will eventually come around and form a democratic, pacifist government. Maybe not. It does not matter.
This same Sharon adviser said the barrier was both ''a physical and a mental wall'' and that the mental component was more important. ''What we really want is to turn our backs on the Arabs and never deal with them again,'' he said, summarizing what he considers the prevailing Israeli view. ''We don't want to be accepted into the Middle East anymore.'' Another top adviser said of Sharon's plan: ''It could help the Palestinians. It could hurt them. We don't care.''
Wen both sides can sustain their finest illusions about each other, as the Israelis and Palestinians could for a while under Oslo, reality has a way of rising to meet them. There was a day when Israeli Jews went to Palestinian jazz clubs in Ramallah. Fear follows a more certain road to fulfilling itself. The extremists who kill off illusions will staunchly protect this route. If you believe you have no peace partner and act as if you do not, you will have no peace partner.
hen I asked Sharon if he still believed, as he once wrote, that it was possible to instill a ''psychology of defeat'' in the Arabs, he turned his head to me and stared. ''No,'' he said after a silence, speaking slowly for emphasis. ''I think that if Israel will show weakness, it will be endless war.''
Sharon's methods of demonstrating strength -- the invasions and blockades of entire cities, the plotted killings of militants, the mass arrests and detention of young men -- have devastated the Palestinians. Rabin believed in fighting terror as if there were no negotiations and negotiating as if there were no terror; by doing away with that second thought -- with, it sometimes seems, any second thoughts -- Sharon has reassured Israelis that they can rebuff the blows of terrorists. But he has left the Palestinians with no dignified exit from the conflict, weakening their pragmatic leaders. It is not only Israelis who say they have no peace partner.
And it is not only Palestinians whose hopes have dimmed. Sharon has largely transferred the conflict from Israeli cities to the occupied territories. But even if he manages to withdraw from Gaza, Israel will remain a nation always on guard and often on offense. It will remain a nation with support groups for parents whose children are enforcing an occupation they would rather not think about. When a soldier forces a Palestinian to strip at a checkpoint or when a soldier demolishes a Palestinian's home, not only the Palestinian suffers and not only the Palestinian may harden.
Sharon told me that ''if circumstances would have been different,'' he would probably have chosen farming rather than a military career. Drawing his nation into implicit parallel, he added that he would have preferred that Israel be known as one of the world's leaders in in-vitro fertilization, that is, as a giver of life. ''I would have liked that Israel will be known not for being warriors,'' he said.
That is a sentiment Sharon expresses fairly often. It is hard to know, as the words come out, how deeply he feels them. He had good reason to accept and even embrace a garrison society as Israel's fate long ago. It is harder for other Israelis to come to terms with it now. They still dream of an Israel that is more about the blithe spirits of Tel Aviv than the ghosts of Jerusalem, more about the dancers on the table in Sharon's living room than the weary soldiers patrolling along his wall.
Because it scorns negotiation and agreement, Sharon's long-term interim arrangement is an acceptance of, and maybe a goad to, enduring conflict -- almost surely at a lower level, but sustained. As this conflict grinds on, Israel will no doubt remain morally alert -- morally conflicted, as demonstrated by the soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories -- but it will also remain morally compromised in the eyes of the world. Its back to the rest of the Middle East, its face to the Mediterranean, Israel could become ''the largest ghetto in modern Jewish history,'' in the words of Ezrahi.
Sharon may be right. This could be the only way to secure Israel's survival as a Jewish haven. But it may mean a poignant legacy for this indomitable, secular Jew born into the Middle East: an Israel that is increasingly religious, walled off from its neighbors, simultaneously yearning after and fearing a Western community of nations that sees it as more and more foreign.