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.
The Sharon the Israeli press knows is opposed to returning one hectare of Judea and Samaria; he once bought a house in the middle of largely Arab East Jerusalem and made a grand political show of moving in. Before Wye, he was on record as firmly opposed to giving back the 13 percent of West Bank land proposed by Americans to reopen the stalled Oslo accords.
In fact, Sharon, a pragmatist, long ago saw the inevitability of ceding the occupied territories and began to change almost singlehandedly the face of the West Bank. In 1977, as Begin’s minister of agriculture, Sharon drew a map of proposed Jewish settlements that would act as security zones strategically placed throughout the territory annexed from Jordan in 1967. As they went up, even fellow generals objected, but Sharon would take his critics for Jeep tours of these raw communities, slapped together with cement blocks and scrap-board, bumping across the high ground of the West Bank, pointing down to the Jewish cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv, which lay exposed in the valley.
And in the eighties, using the secondary cabinet posts to which he was banished, he presided over the building of more than 146 settlements, thousands of homes for Russian immigrants, and hundreds of miles of bypass roads across the occupied territories, so that Israel would be able to do the impossible: return the West Bank to Palestinians without losing the Jewish holy land of Judea and Samaria. “In military strategy,” Sharon told me at his New York hotel, unfurling one of his ubiquitous maps, “you learn that it is not how much land you give up or when, but what land that matters.”
When he was brought in as foreign minister, one of the first things Sharon did was redraw the existing plan for the latest phase of land return. Sharon proposed giving back 13 percent, but not from the zones in the Jordan Valley that he deemed essential.
After ceding the land agreed upon at Wye, Israel will have returned about 40 percent of the West Bank, on which some 98 percent of the West Bank Palestinians live. The major cities are surrounded by “yellow” zones, denoting areas policed by the Palestinians but militarily controlled by Israel. The territories between the cities are crisscrossed with Israeli roads and liberally dotted with settlements – now grown into permanent communities – that act as well-armed fortifications. According to Sharon’s plan, the valley on the east side of the spine of West Bank hills is a nonnegotiable security zone controlled by Israel. The nascent Palestinian nation looks like a series of isolated city-states, dependent on Israel for even their electricity, and surrounded by Israel’s military.
“Sharon has insured that on the West Bank, Jews and Arabs will be totally intertwined,” says Kenneth Bialkin, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It is like Madison and Park Avenue – with a fortified divider down the middle.”
American negotiators are worried by Sharon’s maps. “He talks of eventual territorial contiguity for the Palestinians, but his maps don’t spell contiguity,” said one.
“The return of our historic land was a painful thing to do, very painful,” Sharon says, pointing a callused finger at a spot on his map. “Look, Rachel’s tomb is here, Jews have worshiped here for 4,000 years. Imagine if you had to give back Texas to Mexico or New York to Canada. But you know, after Oslo, this was inevitable. The only thing we could do was prepare against the dangers. On the one hand, we had to learn how to live with the Arabs, and on the other, we had to protect against them.”
American negotiators expect the foreign minister to make more compromises to the Palestinians, pointing hopefully to the sacrifice he made for the peace with Egypt when he directed the dismantling of settlements in the Sinai and evicted settlers. But Sharon has told friends that the destruction of the settlements at Yamit is the biggest regret of his career. “I will never again compromise with Jewish lives or Jewish rights,” he says. “The settlements in Judea and Samaria are permanent.”
After their meeting, Albright and Sharon emerge from double doors and step to the podium. They make a striking pair, two short, round people with the quirky faces of character actors. Sharon speaks first, warning that Israel will freeze the land return unless Palestinian violence abates, but he does it in an expansively gracious way. Albright replies that all this can be worked out at the negotiating table. At the end, he turns and smiles flirtatiously at her and in his thick guttural accent says, “I will be very glad to have you on our farm. Maybe you’ll be able to see how we live there.”
Later, Sharon tells me what really happened behind those double doors. “I saw she was furious,” he says. “It was in her face.” Albright was angry because Netanyahu, besieged by nationalist ministers demanding that Clinton cancel his impending visit to Gaza, had just publicly indicated that the president was not entirely welcome. “Now, that should not have happened,” Sharon says. “It was stupid. I felt bad. You don’t commit bad manners and disinvite someone in order to get rid of some pressure.”
So Sharon called Netanyahu on his cell phone and got him to retract the statement and write the president a letter of welcome. Still, the shock over Bibi’s blunder pervaded every negotiating room Sharon entered that day. “Sandy Berger, Dennis Ross, they felt something true for their president, and I told them how admirable that was. I felt envy, really, to see that kind of personal loyalty, for it seldom exists in our country.”
Indeed, Sharon found out after the Albright meeting that the Israeli cabinet had turned on their prime minister. He was shepherded to a bank of phones in one of Albright’s offices to try to quash the rebellion. The Israeli ambassador waited outside looking glum. The general had postponed his trip to Washington twice to solidify support for the Likud government and try to stave off a vote of no confidence.
Sharon had barely emerged when he was dispatched down a maze of halls for a new round of meetings, his white head bobbing between tall aides. He arrived at special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross’s office puffing. “I didn’t know the job of foreign minister including trotting down these long, long American corridors,” he quipped later. “Then cell phones kept going off, in the office of Ross, of the director of the CIA, the National Religious Party was on the line, Bibi was on the line, and I was trying to convince the nationalists the Americans would stand firm against Arafat, trying to convince the Americans to stand firm so the coalition would not fall apart. It must have looked absurd. What do you call that here, the Catch-22?”
Later, at the White House, Sharon sat beneath a huge Christmas tree garlanded with gold angels and spoke to Netanyahu for the sixteenth time that day. The crisis had been averted, and moreover, the spectacle had persuaded the Americans to put new pressure on Arafat. Earlier, they had told Sharon that the Palestinian leader was “so weak he would be toppled” if he took the kind of public vote Israel demanded to nullify the sections of the PLO Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel during the president’s upcoming Gaza trip.
But when President Clinton, escaping the impeachment imbroglio, slipped into national-security adviser Sandy Berger’s office through the back door, he assured Sharon he would be satisfied. “He said he was not going to preside over a farce; there would be a real vote, not just some dancing on the tables so Arafat could go back to his people and say it had not been done. I told the president he would get a very warm welcome in Jerusalem,” Sharon says.
Nevertheless, Sharon warned him of the likelihood that Israel would delay the next phase of the land return, scheduled for December 18. “The Palestinians have not implemented most of their agreements, and there have to be some concrete moves; Israelis are being killed; thousands of illegal weapons remain uncollected.”
Two days later, Sharon was back in New York. He sat for the only in-depth interview he has given since he became foreign minister. The tables were covered with plates of fruit, juices, coffee – and cans of Slim Fast – set out by his wife, Lili, a tall, beautiful black-haired woman who is the sister of his late first wife. She fusses over him, pulling at the hair straggling at the back of his neck, and he whispers endearments to her in Hebrew. They live on a farm in the Negev Desert, where they raise sheep and cows and grow oranges and melons. He talks about his parents with childlike amazement. “My mother worked so hard and she only complained once – when she was in the hospital and couldn’t be out in the fields. I would clear stones from the fields and load them into the horse cart and up the hills. Every so often, the horse would refuse to go on and my father taught me how to put a stone under the wheel and talk softly into his ear until he was ready to go on.” He laughs. “In the 1973 war, when we saw the line of Egyptian tanks on our borders, I said, ‘A stone is needed,’ and my soldiers didn’t know what I was talking about.”
An aide comes in with the fourth draft of a letter to President Clinton expressing appreciation for their talks and hoping for more opportunities. It is a simple courtesy letter, but he wants to be sure he has done it properly, even to the right use of spacing between lines.
Sharon knows that his relationship with Clinton is a crucial one. As Netanyahu maneuvers to hold on to his office, trying to satisfy both sides by making promises he cannot keep, Sharon has won the president’s trust. “The president asked me if he’d be better off with a Labor government,” Sharon says. “I told him peace always takes longer than war, but a right-wing government can achieve it more easily.”
Sharon concedes that Israel wants to slow down the process, to delay the May 4 deadline when he and his Palestinian counterpart have to implement a permanent status plan for Palestine. “I know why President Clinton wants this peace in a hurry and I feel for his predicament, but this is a region where there is such hatred and mistrust that if you hurry, you fail,” Sharon says. “If Rabin had not rushed through it, perhaps he would be alive today.”
At Wye, Clinton was said to be fascinated with Sharon’s maps and his creative economic ventures. “You’d find them together telling stories about their childhoods, knocking back cans of soda long past midnight,” says one negotiator. “Sharon is the kind of missing father Clinton is drawn to. He was in awe of his military exploits, his visionary qualities. They both grew up poor and they share a creative flare for finding unusual solutions.”
Sharon recounts how he and Clinton spent more than an hour talking about Israeli-Arab projects. “The president likes to talk about real things,” Sharon says. “In that way, we are very much alike. You see, I think the real first steps to peace are giving the parties something to lose if there is war. If there are power stations and plants and factories along your common borders, if you are mutually interdependent, then why would you disturb that? Just imagine,” he continues, leaning forward, his voice taking on the cadences of a poet, “a giant desalination project, where thousands of Arabs and Israelis work to develop and then make it greater and greater over the next twenty years.”
Working toward peace with Yasir Arafat has not softened Sharon’s views on the Palestinian Authority’s chairman. “Arafat is a murderer of babies, of innocents; they were killed on his personal orders,” Sharon says, bringing his fist to the table. “The Americans know this. He personally ordered the assassination of two American diplomats in Khartoum!”
Sharon’s refusal to acknowledge Arafat grated on American negotiators. They describe how Arafat, whom they refer to as “the Chairman,” kept trying to get Sharon’s attention during dinners at Wye, and they found his icy shunning distasteful and unbecoming.
Sharon thinks the Americans are naïve. “They think Arafat is a pussycat who will be nice if you pat him on the head,” Sharon tells me, “but they greatly underestimate him. The present ‘intifada’ in the West Bank is directly incited by Arafat.”
Israelis are so convinced of Arafat’s duplicity and their own sincerity that they are surprised when others are not. “I was asked over and over this time if Israel is looking for an excuse not to withdraw from more territory,” Sharon says. “Why does Israel have to constantly prove itself? Why would I have taken the foreign ministry if I didn’t want peace?
“There is a new Mideast order,” Sharon continues. “We used to be the major concern of America, but now we are just a small part of a larger game. We are a tiny country in the target area of Iraq and Iran, Syria and Lebanon, all hostile to us.
“This is why we must take a very hard line in protecting our territory. And this is why it is so frustrating that Washington does not seem to know that Arafat will not give up anything unless forced. He would not have even come to the negotiating table were it not for the growing communities the settlements in Judea and Samaria have become.”
Israelis have always been skeptical of the liberal Jews on the Clinton negotiating team, but Sharon reportedly felt something new from Clinton at Wye, a kind of understanding and openness. One observer describes an informal but telling moment in one of the kitchenettes when Arafat was describing his engineering accomplishments. “He was bragging about how he built the roads of Saudi Arabia and the ports of the Persian Gulf, and Albright and Ross were rapt, almost misty-eyed, and the president looked at Arafat’s hands, which were very smooth and white, and then he looked at Sharon with this ironic gleam in his eye.”
Before Wye, Sharon’s colleagues baited him, predicting that he would cave in on his promise not to shake Arafat’s hand, just as Netanyahu ended up sharing dinner and cigars with him. “But I did not shake his hand,” Sharon says. “He saluted me, but I walked right past and shook the hand of Abu Mazen (his deputy).”
How, I ask him, can he carry this hatred and still make peace with the PLO?
“Look,” he says, “there is so much hatred here in our country, it cannot be covered by Band-Aids or false sentiments. It will take a lot of time, much, much longer than my lifetime. It must be slow, and the two peoples must get to know each other, learn from each other, see each other every day.”
Sharon can speak contemptuously about how the Arabs have overpumped the aquifers in Gaza, how PLO leaders regularly skim for themselves a big chunk of international-aid donations. At Wye, Arafat is said to have tweaked Israelis about being fearful that shipping at Gaza would steal Israel’s export-import business, to which Sharon replied that on the contrary he would be glad to get his American-made John Deere caterpillar sent to General Sharon via the Gaza port.
Still, says Sharon, “everyone can learn something from someone else. The Arabs have much to teach us about the land, how they squeeze every last thing from it, about family loyalty.
“You know, I like the Palestinians, those who are peaceful, and I have no problem with the younger PLO deputies whose hands are unbloodied. But there are some things which I will never compromise on. One of them is Yasir Arafat.”
Sharon has told friends he will never recover from the wounds he incurred after the Lebanon invasion in 1982. In the chaos, the Lebanese Phalangist militiamen, who were Israeli allies, slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilla camps, which the Israelis had surrounded, and Sharon was blamed for failing to prevent the massacres. He was stripped of his defense ministry, distanced by even his own Likud Party, and could not assume the post of foreign minister he’d won because the Bush administration nixed him.
When I ask if he has any regrets about the invasion, his voice rises: “None whatsoever. It was a war of salvation. Lebanon had become an independent state of terror with a full 10,000-man force right at our border. Imagine today if that existed, with Iraqi Scud missiles… . I have no regrets. I backed it, I was behind it, all of them were behind it, Begin, the whole cabinet. They all took shelter behind my back, all of them, including Begin, and it was not the first time.”
Yet, faced with a new crop of terrorists backed by Iran, Sharon now believes in complete withdrawal from Lebanon. “We suffer too many casualties there,” he says. “Lebanon must take responsibility for stopping terrorism, and if it does not, then we will takes measures against its infrastructure, using early-warning signals so there will be no civilian casualties. This will include blowing up their bridges, power stations, roads, but being very careful of course to avoid civilian casualties.”
Sharon’s relationship with Netanyahu is more complicated. He’s known him since he was a boy, but though Sharon admired his older brother, who died a hero at Entebbe, his relations with Bibi have been contentious. Still, he decided to help bring Netanyahu to power almost three years ago. But once elected, Bibi shunned him and then, because of an outcry by Sharon’s supporters, created for him the nebulous post of minister of infrastructure.
Sharon’s opening came as a result of an Israeli blunder. Israeli intelligence agents bungled an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader on Jordanian soil with a poison dart, creating an international crisis. Sharon was selected by King Hussein as the Israeli Hussein would speak to to defuse the situation. Talking to Sharon, Hussein began to come around, and the two shared a moment of Bedouin irony. Hussein conceded that he shared Sharon’s feeling about the Hamas operative. Sharon promised that next time, the Israelis would not try to use the rest of the poison in the dart. Within a matter of hours, the agents had been hustled out of Jordan.
After that, Bibi began to rely on Sharon’s gifts in dealing with Israel’s neighbors. Sharon (who also had excellent relations with leaders he vanquished, like Anwar Sadat) has been meeting secretly with younger PLO leaders. The 70-year-old general was put back in the loop. He disapproved of the prime minister’s way of holding on to power by dispensing favors to Knesset members. Sharon has tried to school Netanyahu in Realpolitik: “If you don’t stick to a long-term goal, you lose your credibility, giving in to pressure from this one and then that. You have to move in phases, stop and withdraw a little to the left or to the right, but you have to always see the target.”
Back in Israel during Clinton’s trip to Gaza, Sharon surprised American negotiators by reverting to type: the uncompromising hard-liner. After the PNC’s vote to renounce the clauses in its charter calling for the destruction of Israel, the Americans expected that Israel would quickly implement the next land withdrawal. But at a meeting at Gaza’s entrance gate, Sharon refused to acknowledge Arafat’s presence. Instead, he put down a list on the table of the thousands of illegal arms held by Palestinian police, along with their locations.
The Palestinians looked shocked, and one said, “How do you know about these? What is the source of your information?” Sharon replied that that was not his business, but what was his business was to comply with the Wye agreements.
“Sharon was not in his constructive mode. He would not leave any opening. He would not even discuss releasing any more prisoners on a case-by-case basis,” said one member of the American team.
Later, Sharon explained his position. “If the Americans could press Arafat into staging the real vote in Gaza that we have demanded since Oslo,” he told me, “then they can press him to make real moves such as a stop to West Bank violence and abandon the threat to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.”
After Clinton returned to Washington, Sharon urged Netanyahu to call new elections. In a strong speech on Israeli television, delivered in his characteristic hellfire oratory, he urged the quarreling ministers to stop undermining what was the best and most secure peace that any Israeli government could achieve. Increasingly, he’s become the navigator of the Netanyahu ship.
Of course, Netanyahu’s government may not be around much longer, but a Labor government might also be loath to alter Sharon’s security-based withdrawal map; Sharon secretly devised it for Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government after the Oslo accords. “We had discreet meetings,” says Sharon, “because Rabin needed to know how best to implement the land return without making Israelis sitting targets.”
One of Sharon’s most prized possessions is the original, frayed 1977 settlements map. “You see, every settlement was built,” he says, comparing the two maps and pointing to the blue dots that are clustered around and between the West Bank cities that have been returned. “There is almost no difference between the map we created in 1977 and the actual map of today.”
So, the way Ariel Sharon sees it, he’s been working for peace for a long time.