To his detractors, Ariel Sharon will always seem the fanatic. He convinced Menachem Begin that invading Lebanon in 1982 would be worth the costs, and in 2000 he insisted on visiting the Temple Mount, the Muslim-controlled holy site in Jerusalem—a walkabout that helped trigger the second intifadeh. As Israel's Foreign Minister, he refused to shake Yasser Arafat's hand at the Wye Plantation peace talks in 1998 and eventually made sure Arafat spent his last years barricaded in his offices in Ramallah, unable to jet around the world espousing the Palestinian cause. His planetary dimensions—at 5 ft. 7 in., he weighed as much as 312 lbs.—have long suggested a lack of discipline at the table that many think reflects a deeper wildness. At one point, American intelligence monitored Sharon's weight in an effort to predict his actions—the theory being the more he consumed, the more adveanturously he would behave. Alluding to his politics, Sharon once acknowledged that he was thought of as someone who "eats Arabs for breakfast."
That is one image of Ariel Sharon: the right-wing zealot. In the past few years, another reputation has taken hold: Sharon reborn as peacemaker. The idea is that, having achieved his dream of becoming Prime Minister of Israel in 2001 at the age of 73, Sharon would—in a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of way—become the man to reconcile the Israelis and Palestinians once and for all. That was his campaign slogan: "Only Sharon can bring peace." And people inside and outside Israel began to believe it after Sharon, the man who once planned and nurtured the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, had them forcibly evacuated last August, enabling Israeli troops to leave and turning the entire Gaza Strip at last over to Palestinian self-rule. In the weeks before Sharon's debilitating stroke, rumors abounded that he was preparing to make bold withdrawals in the West Bank as well.
Sharon, however, has always resisted the stereotypes imposed on him. He was never an unrelenting right-wing ideologue nor, in recent years, a devotee of peace-making. Politically, Sharon is best known as a co-founder of the hawkish Likud bloc, but he has been a member of four other parties, including the precursor to the left-wing Labor Party, in which he started out, and his own creation, Shlomzion, which flirted with doves.
Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip served the interests of peace, although that was perhaps not why Sharon carried it out. His emissaries suggested that he quit Gaza—a sandy, squalid quarter to which few Israelis feel any attachment—to win goodwill in the world in order to strengthen Israel's claim to its more valued settlements in the West Bank. Media reports recently suggested Sharon was prepared to unilaterally draw a border in the West Bank between Israel and what might become a Palestinian state, emptying Jewish settlements that fell on the wrong side. It's an interesting idea, and perhaps a good one, but it's not peacemaking, which requires mutual consent. Sharon almost certainly would have apportioned more West Bank land to Israel than the Palestinians would have kept the conflict alive. His notion of coming to terms with the Palestinians is a bit like the idea that getting out of a bad marriage is as simple as saying, "I divorce thee," and dictating the property settlement.