The Gamble Of a Lifetime

EXCLUSIVE: At 77, Ariel Sharon is risking it all on his plan to give up the Gaza Strip settlements. Spend time with him at his home, and he'll tell you why

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Ariel Sharon's house lies on Balfour Street in the heart of Jerusalem, in a gracious residential area nestled among old-growth trees. The two-story compound is the official residence of the Israeli Prime Minister, but these days it resembles a military bunker. The building is shrouded behind 20-ft.-high walls and barbed wire; an assortment of policemen, soldiers and armored vehicles stand sentry on the perimeter. In an alley adjacent to the house, visitors must hand over their belongings and pass through X-ray machines before being body searched, swabbed for explosives and interrogated about their travel histories. By the time you finally enter the residence--it took us more than an hour--you don't need much convincing that its occupant is a marked man.

Sharon doesn't like to spend much time here. On most nights, he slips out of the house and takes a helicopter to Sycamore Farm, 1,500 acres of pasture that he bought in the 1970s. "I live on a farm," he declares, as we are led into the dining room of his official residence. "It's not less beautiful there, with the cattle and the horses, and the fields and the flowers." When Sharon speaks, you can get the sense that he wishes he were somewhere else--away from the grinding pressures of a job that in recent months has left him vilified by even some of his staunchest supporters in Israel. Yet after more than a half-century as one of the most visible, voluble and polarizing figures in the Middle East, Sharon, 77, possesses a near inexhaustible reservoir of stubborn self-belief. And so, almost as soon as he drifts into reverie about life on the farm, he snaps out of it. "In any case, I'm here," he says, looking around the house he has fitfully occupied since his election in 2001. "And I'm not intending to leave."

That faith is about to be put to the test. Until last year, the most intense bile directed toward Sharon emanated from the Arab world, an enmity that grew out of his actions when he was a commander in the Israeli army and that hardened after he launched a ruthless campaign against Palestinian terrorism in 2002. To his critics, the notion that Sharon might ever bring himself to make concessions to the Palestinians was laughable. They raged when, not long after Sharon ordered tanks into the West Bank in 2002, President George W. Bush called him a "man of peace." But then the unthinkable happened: Sharon in April of last year announced plans to evacuate all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, a move that would uproot 10,000 Israelis from their homes and effectively hand the Palestinian Authority control over Gaza. Backed by the Bush Administration and a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, the disengagement plan stirred hopes for a breakthrough in the moribund peace process--an optimism that gained fresh momentum after the death of Sharon's nemesis, Yasser Arafat, last November.

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