12/27/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
Driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon had been Ariel Sharon's dream. Last summer the bellicose Israeli Defense Minister seized the opportunity to make it come true. But instead of the 48-hour surgical operation he had promised, the fighting dragged on for week after agonizing week. The repercussions, at home and abroad, have shaken Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government. Sharon's campaign, launched under the code name "Peace for Galilee," took 446 Israeli lives; by contrast, PLO terrorism over the last year had cost only eight Israeli dead. And Israel's bloody siege of West Beirut both tarnished the country's international reputation and strained relations with the United States.
A magnet for controversy throughout his military career, "Arik" Sharon, 54, has been called before an official commission of inquiry, which is investigating Israeli involvement in the massacre by Lebanese Christian militiamen of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. Although the commission is not expected to issue a report until February, Sharon, along with Begin and seven others, has been warned officially that he could be harmed by the findings. Publicly, Sharon contradicted Begin, who had claimed the Israel Defense Forces entered West Beirut, where the camps are located, "to prevent bloodshed" after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Sharon said, "The true reason that the IDF entered West Beirut was to clean the camps out."
Critics charge that the short (5'6"), corpulent (235 pounds) soldier is a brutal opportunist insensitive to suffering. As a troop commander for nearly 30 years, time and again he has drawn reprimands for ignoring his superiors' orders. Indifferent to domestic criticism ("I don't waste time on wars with Jews," he snaps. "I am busy with a war against the PLO"), he is frequently accused of twisting facts to suit his political purposes. "If only he could overcome his habit of not telling the truth," Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion, once wrote, "he could be an exemplary military leader." Yet his operations too often seem ruthless. In 1953 his paratroop commandos avenged the murder of an Israeli woman and her children by blowing up houses in the Arab village of Kibbia, killing 69 men, women and children. "Whatever he does," says former IDF Chief of Staff
Mordechai Gur, "he always leaves a long path of blood."
Sharon's ambition to become Israel's Prime Minister is no secret. Initially reluctant to name him Defense Minister, Begin once jested that Sharon "would surround my office with tanks." In recent months Sharon's popularity has plummeted, but the thick-skinned ultranationalist should not be counted out. A Sabra raised on a farm in Palestine surrounded by hostile Arab villages, Sharon has built an enthusiastic constituency among Israeli settlers in his nation's occupied territories. He is himself a devoted farmer, raising oranges, cotton and sheep on his 1,000-acre spread in the Negev. Assisting him is Lili, his wife of 20 years and the mother of his sons, Omry, 18, and Gilead, 16. Sharon is clearly not yet ready to retire to his farm. "Politically, as in a military operation, Arik will tire his opponent with a war of attrition," says one Israeli Cabinet minister. "Sharon has only one principle he abides by: What is good for Arik is good for the state of Israel."