Shortly before takeoff, passengers in the first rows of the shuttle from New York to Washington are unceremoniously uprooted from their seats and whisked to the back of the plane. Then security guards shuffle backward through the plane's door, shielding a harmless-looking portly, white-haired man: Israel's foreign minister, Ariel Sharon. Sharon is on his way to Washington to attempt to hold together the teetering peace plan agreed on in Wye River, Maryland, in October. It's a tense time, but Sharon seems to be enjoying it. As the plane ascends and the lights etch out the map of Manhattan, he marvels at the Twin Towers rising like pillars from a temple floor. "If we had those in Tel Aviv," he jokes to his wife, Lili, "we could give the Palestinians all the high ground and still be higher."
Sharon, 70, is the last of the original Israeli pioneers still in the political arena. He has lived Israel's history -- forging a Jewish homeland from the desert, ingeniously farming and populating it, passionately defending its territory. He fought with Moshe Dayan in the 1948 War of Independence, and went on to become one of Israel's most brilliant generals. In 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian tanks massed at Israel's borders for a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, Sharon argued his superiors into letting him lead his vastly outnumbered troops across the Suez Canal to attack Egypt from the rear, winning a stunning victory. In 1982, Sharon's reputation for ruthless independence became notoriety when he swept through Lebanon, leaving a bloody wake. The general was catapulted from national hero to national pariah.
But the Levant is brimming with paradox, and its overlapping realities shift like tides with the moon. Sharon spent fifteen years in the political desert, dismissed as a firebrand, a superhawk, even a murderer, shunned by Presidents Bush and Clinton and frozen out by Netanyahu. But now his career has circled round to meet itself. He has been brought out of exile to be an architect of the new Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement as well as its unlikely diplomatic broker. In Israel, Sharon is viewed as "Bibi's gun-for-hire," plucked from the margins two days before the Wye peace conference to appease the agitated right wing. But as the process has gone on, he's assumed a much larger role. Relations between Israel and America have often been damaged by the animosity between Netanyahu and Clinton. But Sharon, who possesses a disarming charm to accompany his military gifts, has nurtured a warm relationship with the president and his advisers. Sharon's plainspoken, decisive style -- in sharp contrast to Netanyahu's vacillations -- has pushed the sputtering peace process forward, if more slowly than Washington wants. And sixteen years after he engineered the invasion of Lebanon, he is now openly advocating withdrawal.
"Sharon may be a hard-liner, but his word is good, and he's somebody one immediately respects," says Clinton cabinet member Bill Richardson. "In Wye, he had the political stature and the unique imagination to work out a land return that ended up being acceptable to all sides."
So has the Last Warrior become a man of peace? The answer is yes, in a sense. But things in the Middle East are never that simple.
On Monday morning, December 7, Sharon's hotel in Washington is crawling with security. He is hustled out the back door, and his motorcade, sirens blaring, delivers him to the State Department for a meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As the meeting stretches into its second hour, the press in the treaty room grow restless. "Tell me what the hell the big general is doing here, anyway?" says a cameraman. "The hawk has put on the wings of the dove," drawls an Israeli reporter.