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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Sharon isn't one to be worried about the misgivings of his political rivals. Last May, Sharon's Likud Party rejected the disengagement plan in a referendum, but Sharon pressed ahead anyway. "He really likes to humiliate his opponents," says Yuval Steinitz, a leading Likud legislator. While those who know him say he is adept at cultivating allies when he needs them, he has few close friends in the Israeli political establishment, and he knows it. At a Cabinet meeting last month, Sharon excused himself early, explaining that he had to attend the funeral of an aunt. He looked slowly around the table at his ministers. "Don't get excited," he said. "She was 100 years old. In my family, we live to an old age." It was vintage Sharon, a joke loaded with a knowing undercurrent of accusation.

Many of Israel's 240,000 settlers denounce the Prime Minister as a traitor. Sharon's security advisers fear that the settlers' civil disobedience campaign could escalate into violent clashes with soldiers evacuating the Gaza Strip in August, and could split the army. Settler rabbis have encouraged religious army reservists not to follow orders to take part in the evacuation. On Israel's Independence Day last week, more than 50,000 people gathered in the Gaza settlements, some wearing orange T shirts with the slogan A JEW DOESN'T EXPEL A JEW.

For a rock-ribbed Zionist like Sharon, nothing cuts deeper. "These are the people he loved the most," says Olmert. "Now that some of them view him as a traitor must be having a devastating emotional impact." Early last year, Sharon sat in the Tel Aviv ad-agency office of his close friend Adler and shook his head as he talked about the anger of the settlers. "This decision is more difficult for me than all the battles I was in," he said.

Sharon told TIME that withdrawing from Gaza "was the hardest decision I had to make" but reiterated his belief that it was the right one. "We're going to do it," he says. "I'm fully committed to it." If the Gaza pullout is accompanied by calm--from both the settlers and the Palestinian militants--Sharon might be able to recover party support in time for next year's elections, according to Likud leaders. Still, it's difficult to imagine a re-elected Sharon throwing himself into the peace process that the Bush Administration hopes to revive in its second term. Sharon told TIME that he believes the Oslo agreement signed by Arafat and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 was "the deepest mistake that any government has done, bringing over here thousands of armed terrorists." Sharon isn't pulling out of Gaza because he has changed his view of the Palestinians; rather, he's withdrawing precisely because he still mistrusts them, refusing to believe that Abbas and his aides are willing to take the necessary measures to keep Israel safe from terrorism. "The basic problem between ourselves and the Arabs ... is that Arabs do not recognize the birthright of the Jews to have an independent country here," he says. An aide to Abbas says that it is Sharon, not the Palestinians, who is unable to free himself from his dogmas. Without his archenemy Arafat to demonize, the aide says, Sharon seems unsure of how to deal with the Palestinian leadership. "Sharon still misses Arafat," says the aide.

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