Friends can be hard to come by when you're fighting for your political life. During a recent session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Ariel Sharon sat impassively as a former supporter harangued him from the podium, addressing the Prime Minister by his nickname, Arik, and attacking his plan to evacuate 7,500 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. "Why can't you be the man you once were?" shouted the man, a settler named Nissim Slomiansky. "Be the old Arik?" Slomiansky accused Sharon of selling out longtime comrades in his single-minded quest to redraw Israel's borders according to his own design. After listening to several minutes of invective, Sharon turned wearily to the minister seated next to him. "Doesn't he understand," the Prime Minister whispered, "that it's impossible to go back?"
After a 31-year political career during which he has established himself as one of the most divisive, yet enduring leaders in the world, Sharon once again faces a critical juncture. An Israeli state prosecutor last week recommended that Sharon be indicted on corruption charges stemming from allegations that he gave favors to a political supporter in return for payments to Sharon's son Gilad. Sharon denies the allegations, but if the Attorney General goes forward with the indictment in early June, Sharon will probably face enormous pressure from the public and the media to resign. Yet the prospect of being forced from office seems only to have added to Sharon's desire to carry out his bold policy of "disengagement," which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and perhaps much of the West Bank and the completion of a wall to seal off Israel from Palestinian-dominated territory. If implemented, the plan would result in the first evacuations of settlements by Israel since the signing of a peace deal with the Palestinians a decade ago.
The fate of the plan could be decided next week, when Sharon is due to visit Washington in an effort to win the White House's endorsement. Critics of disengagement range from Palestinian leaders who accuse him of trying to draw unilateral borders and subvert the peace process to right-wing Israelis who say Sharon is rewarding Palestinian terrorism. Many see in the Israeli leader's refusal to compromise with his opponents a familiar, stubborn determination that, while useful in the battles young Sharon won as a general, may prove to be his undoing. Among Sharon's longtime nemeses, there has been glee at news of his possible downfall. When an aide informed Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat of the prosecutor's call to indict Sharon, Arafat smiled broadly and, according to people who were present, interrupted a meeting he was chairing. "Didn't I tell you," said Arafat, a man not unfamiliar with charges of corruption, "that he will be consigned to the trash can of history, where he will be ignored?"