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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But progress rarely comes easily in this part of the world. With the evacuation of the settlements set to take place in August, Sharon confronts howling doubts--from across Israel's political spectrum--about disengagement and what comes after it. Critics on the left accuse Sharon of giving up Gaza as a ploy to hold on to the larger settlements in the West Bank and put further agreements with the Palestinians on ice. But the most vituperative condemnations have come from Sharon's former right-wing allies, who view the Prime Minister as a sellout who abandoned his historic support for the settlements in exchange for the international approbation that has long eluded him. Emotions run so high that many Israeli leaders warn of potential Israeli-on-Israeli violence when the evacuation takes place. A poll taken earlier this month showed that public support for the plan had sunk to 54%, from a high of 78% a year ago. Sharon is the target of assassination threats from Jewish extremists, and some members of his Likud Party privately doubt he will be the party's candidate for Prime Minister in next year's elections.

Nearly everywhere Sharon goes in Israel, he expects to be besieged. Appearing as the guest of honor at an annual Bible trivia competition in Jerusalem last week, Sharon was heckled by two teenagers who shouted, "Jews do not expel Jews!" when the Prime Minister got up to speak. "He knows that what he's doing is different from what he has fought for much of his life," says Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "I think he believes he's right, but that doesn't make him much happier. He's a lonely person."

In a Sunday-evening interview with TIME, Sharon--dressed in a dark blue suit, wearing a Breitling watch and nibbling on homemade cookies--professes little concern about the threats on his life. "I participated in all the wars and battles of this country," he says. "I've been through many dangers. It doesn't affect me at all." Of his decision to pull out of Gaza, he says, "I felt it would be a mistake not to find a way to start a process that might bring change in the region ... I had a very strong government, and I could continue with it to the end of my term. But I thought it would be a mistake not to try a political process." And yet he rejects the idea of withdrawing Israeli forces and civilians from the West Bank once the Gaza pullout is complete, saying that he intends to limit future concessions to the Palestinians to those spelled out in the U.S.-backed road map, which outlines a series of incremental, confidence-building steps to be carried out by both sides before the start of negotiations for a final settlement of the conflict. And while Sharon believes that Arafat's successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "understands the danger of terror," he dismisses Abbas' efforts to rein in Palestinian militants--despite the fact that a four-month-old halt on attacks against Israel brokered by Abbas has largely held. "It is not enough to understand, to say, to promise, to declare," he says. "Right now we don't see any steps that have been taken. I hope it will happen. Right now we don't see anything."

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