Israelis turn to warrior Sharon

Barak failures turn voters to rightist hated by the Arabs

Israelis turn to Sharon, the anti-Barak

January 22, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HALUTZA DUNES, Israel - Sheltering foxes, badgers and scrub, these forbidding hills in the Negev Desert seem the cheapest part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel would yield this land in exchange for annexing part of the West Bank.

But to Ariel Sharon, they are a precious national asset, the future home of up to 1 million new Jewish immigrants. Giving up this territory advances a Palestinian goal of shrinking the state of Israel to the narrow confines of a 1948 United Nations partition plan, he says.

"This will not come to pass," Sharon declared last week as he stood atop the highest dune in the late-afternoon sun, waving his right arm majestically toward the Egyptian border.

In a half-century of war and politics, "Arik" Sharon, 72, has always thought in big terms - more territory for the land of Israel, more security for its people, overwhelming responses to Arab terror, more Jewish settlements on occupied territory, and a large, undivided capital in Jerusalem.

If opinion polls are remotely accurate, Israel's voters will elect Sharon prime minister in three weeks, so disillusioned are they with incumbent Ehud Barak and his peace strategy.

In a bid to remake Sharon's warrior image, campaign handlers film him with his grandchildren and advertise the candidate with a soft jingle in which his name rhymes with "Shalom," Hebrew for "peace." Out on the stump, he smiles constantly, brightening a face weathered by farming and lined by the loss of two wives and a son.

Israeli history offers at least one powerful example of a tough right-winger who realistically pursued peace once he became prime minister - Menachem Begin, who gave up the captured Sinai Peninsula for the sake of a peace treaty with Egypt.

But historian Howard Sachar of George Washington University doubts that Sharon fits this mold and says "everything in his record" suggests otherwise. Sachar fears that a violent uprising by the Palestinians would be met by a "tremendously violent spasm of retaliation" that would reinforce Arab fears of Sharon.

"This is obviously not a viable way to make an agreement, simply on the basis of fear and terror," Sachar says.

Ultimately, he says, the Persian Gulf states might increase oil prices to pressure the West as they did after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Using unofficial emissaries, Sharon has been trying to calm Arab fears. They understand, he says, that "I mean what I say and say what I mean."

As one familiar with the horrors of war, Sharon insists that "no one can preach to me about peace."

But he won't say how he would achieve it. In offering Palestinians little more than they have already received, Sharon "is introducing a recipe for war and disaster," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

A legendary figure

Sharon's proud Jewish nationalism is rooted in the sand and soil of a farm village in pre-independence Palestine. He joined the Haganah, forerunner of the Israeli army, at age 14, beginning a military career marked by daring, creativity and a tendency to flout or go beyond orders, thus depriving himself of the uppermost army job. He was wounded twice.

"I do not know a better field commander than Arik," wrote legendary Israeli chief of staff and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. "We also had our quarrels. But even when I feel like murdering him, at least I know he is somebody worth murdering."

To David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, Sharon embodied the daring Jewish fighter.

Guile and brutality characterized his treatment of Arab adversaries. As a young soldier, he once lured Jordanian soldiers across the border with a ruse and then captured them. As commander of an elite anti-terror unit dubbed 101, he led a reprisal raid on the Palestinian village of Kibya that claimed 69 lives, including many women and children.

To rout out terror in the occupied Gaza Strip after the 1967 Middle East war, Sharon's men found and raided underground bunkers, demolished houses and widened alleyways.

"Behind every commander's jeep, I wanted to see a bulldozer," he wrote in his autobiography.

To one of his Israeli detractors, former Cabinet colleague Yitzhak Berman, Sharon's lifetime of conflict has made him "a hater of Arabs."

"Ridiculous," scoffs Sharon's son Omri.

Sharon himself did not agree to an interview.

"In the house I grew up in, we always believed we were going to live with Arabs," says the younger Sharon, who serves as his father's campaign manager. "They're part of our lives, part of our society. My father always had Arab friends."

To many Israelis, Ariel Sharon, is a legendary figure. He helped turn the tide during the 1973 Middle East war, leading his men across the Suez Canal and into Egypt. His code name was the number 40.

"Everybody in the desert heard his voice, and they trusted him," recalls his friend Eli Landau.

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