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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Such talk reveals a hard truth about Sharon: despite his reversal on the wisdom of maintaining some settlements in the occupied territories, he remains deeply skeptical about the possibilities for peace in the foreseeable future, a view forged by a lifetime of fighting wars to defend Israel from its Arab enemies. "I don't think he's willing or able to reach a settlement with the Palestinians," says Yossi Sarid, a former left-wing Cabinet minister.

In person, Sharon comes off as amiable and even warm, his answers often lightened by a high-pitched, boyish giggle. But that masks an abiding wariness. He relies on an intimate circle of advisers--"enough to fit into an armored personnel carrier," according to his spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin--who say that while he has mellowed with age, he still rises before dawn, racked with anxiety about the precarious existence of the Jewish homeland. Says Reuven Adler, one of his closest advisers: "He's focused all the time only on what's good for the Jews." It's no wonder, then, that Sharon is haunted most by the fact that so many Israelis believe that he's about to betray them.

To appreciate the degree of bitterness that Sharon's plan has induced in the Israeli right, consider the experience of Adiel Mintz, a settler leader who lives in Dolev, a West Bank outpost that is home to 1,000 Jews. From the early days of the settlement movement in the 1970s, Sharon was its biggest political supporter. Mintz recalls first seeing Sharon in 1975, when Mintz joined a group of young activists trying to found a West Bank settlement. As police tried to dislodge the activists, Mintz says that Sharon, then a parliamentary freshman, chased after the soldiers, shouting, "You can't do that! You can't expel Jews from their land!"

But while many settlers believe that the rights of Jews to populate Palestinian-dominated lands are rooted in the Bible, Mintz says that Sharon, who is not religious, saw the settlements in strategic terms: as they drained Israel's resources, provoked Palestinian attacks and damaged Israel's reputation abroad, Sharon began to reconsider the virtues of holding on to all of them. In May 2003, Sharon shocked the settlers when he said that "keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is the worst thing for Israel." To Mintz, Sharon's use of the word occupation--and its implication that he believed the settlements were illegitimate--was the first sign that Sharon was preparing to desert them. "He talks about the rights of the Jewish people," Mintz says. "But the historical rights of the Jews to this land were never deep in his heart."

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