A Man Called Bulldozer

updated 02/26/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ariel Sharon had come to America for the October 1998 peace summit, but what caught his attention were the livestock. Arriving at Virginia's Wye Plantation for a historic round of negotiations with Palestinian leaders, Sharon, then Israel's foreign minister, noticed the enormous cows on a neighboring farm. "He wanted to see what kind of facilities the farm had," recalls a diplomat, pointing out that Sharon has a herd on his own sprawling ranch in the Negev Desert. Says adviser Raanan Gissin: "He is a man tied to the land."

Now his land's destiny is tied to him. Long considered an extremist in Israeli politics, Sharon, 72, was seen as a has-been at best and at worst as a reckless provocateur who bore some responsibility for the latest round of Middle East bloodshed. Yet in Israel's Feb. 6 election the burly ex-general, nicknamed Bulldozer, trounced incumbent Ehud Barak with more than 62 percent of the vote, becoming prime minister at one of the most volatile moments in Israel's 52-year history. "The government I head will work to bring back security to the citizens of Israel," he vowed, "and achieve true peace and stability in the region."

To many, Sharon seems singularly ill-suited for that mission. He is best known as the career soldier who led Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon that ultimately resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. A lifelong hawk, Sharon last September was accused of triggering a new round of Palestinian riots when he led a delegation to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a holy site to both Jews and Muslims. More than 390 people, at least 327 of them Palestinians, have been killed in the violence that has followed, and peace negotiations have all but ended. "I'm afraid that we will not have a peace process anymore," Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told CNN after the election. "I would say, 'God help Palestinians and Israelis.' "

Yet those close to him say the private Sharon is a gentler, more civilized figure than his public persona suggests. They see a lover of classical music who covets private time at his 800-acre ranch and who remains heartbroken by the death last March of his wife, Lily, from lung cancer at 63. "Everybody has the image that he eats Arabs for breakfast," says Gissin, his adviser. "But he is not like that. If he wasn't a general, he would probably be a writer or poet."

Perhaps, but Sharon seems to have been destined for military life. Born in British-controlled Palestine, the younger of two children of parents who in 1921 had fled what is now Azerbaijan, he was raised on a Zionist agricultural collective near Tel Aviv. His father gave him an engraved Caucasian dagger for his bar mitzvah to help guard the fields. Sharon would later say that his family lacked closeness, something he found only later in the military. "I felt surrounded by warmth and security," he wrote in a 1989 autobiography. "I had not often experienced the same kind of outward affection from my own family."

At 14, Sharon joined the Haganah, the Jewish military underground, and went on to fight in Israel's War of Independence in 1948, when he was shot in the stomach and thigh and left for dead on a battlefield. In 1953, as head of an elite commando team, he organized a retaliatory raid on the Jordanian village of Kibbiya in which 69 people—many of them women and children—died when their homes were demolished. Sharon later said his soldiers had first searched the village and found no signs of life.

His own life too has been touched by grief. In 1947 he was working his family's land when he spotted a 16-year-old named Margalit tending a nearby vegetable field; they wed in 1953, and she gave birth to their son Gur in 1956. Six years later she died in an auto accident. The next year Sharon married her sister Lily, with whom he had two more sons—Omri, 36, now a Sharon adviser, and Gilad, 34, who runs the farm. But in 1967, Gur, just 10, died while he and a friend were playing with an antique shotgun. "The pain is unending, impossible to heal," a friend recalls Sharon saying of the loss.

It was that same year, during Israel's Six Day War, that Sharon became a national hero. Responding to attacks from Israel's Arab neighbors, he led the division that seized control of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. But frequent disagreements with commanders who saw him as a maverick narrowed his chance for promotion, so he left the army for politics.

He was defense minister in 1982, when he persuaded Prime Minister Menachem Begin to authorize an invasion of Lebanon to target Palestinian Liberation Organization bases in the region. An Israeli commission later indirectly blamed him for failing to prevent Lebanese Christian militias allied with Israel from slaughtering hundreds of Palestinians and others in refugee camps outside Beirut. (In 1985 Sharon lost a libel suit against TIME for its story on his role in the incident, but a federal jury in Manhattan did fault Time for careless and negligent reporting, and the magazine retracted a key part of its story.)

"Sharon grew up to regard Arabs as the enemy, and his whole professional career has been fighting them," says Tom Segev, a Jerusalem-based author and historian. "He was against every peace agreement with the Arabs." Always, Sharon remained one of the country's most prominent right-wing voices, leading the effort to develop settlements in territory seized in the 1967 war and even maintaining a home in Jerusalem's predominantly Arab Moslem quarter, where he flies an Israeli flag. "The Palestinian people see him as a man of expansion and settlements," says Ziad Abu-Zayyad, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

That is one reason why he caused such an uproar last September with his visit to the Temple Mount. Though the U.N. Security Council labeled the move "provocative," Sharon made no public comment at the time, and Barak's government later charged that the ensuing violence was a premeditated campaign orchestrated by the Palestinians. Amid the turmoil Barak offered more and more concessions in an effort to salvage the peace process—too many, clearly, for Israeli voters. Sharon has until the end of March to form a unity government and has already reached out to Barak to become his defense minister, an invitation that may well be accepted. "We will have to wait," says Abu-Zayyad, "to see whether he will behave like an ideologue or a statesman."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Dina Shiloh in Israel, Eileen Finan in London and Sharon Cotliar in New York City

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