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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In many ways, the old warrior is more alone than ever, an isolation that has been reinforced by the security bubble in which he now lives. When Sharon held his customary Memorial Day ceremony honoring Israel's war dead last week, there were more bodyguards than audience members. He has not remarried since his second wife Lily died in 2000. On the farm, he wakes at 5 a.m. for a security briefing; at 6, while Sharon shaves, Gissin briefs him on headlines from the day's papers. His sons Gilad, 39, who runs Sycamore Farm, in Negev, and Omri, 41, a member of parliament, are his closest advisers. At the farm, Sharon takes comfort in his five grandchildren and the wild anemones and the Assaf sheep he breeds.

Sharon's zealous devotion to his land reflects the role he sees for himself in Israeli life, as the single-minded guardian of Israel's status "as the only place in the world where Jews have the right and the power to defend themselves by themselves." While preserving the long-term viability of the Jewish state may require giving up some territory, to Sharon it does not mean giving ground. At the end of his talk with TIME, Sharon recounted his 30-year career as a soldier and reservist, during which he served in the army, the commando unit and the parachute corps. "I was badly injured twice," he recalls. "I lost my friends. I had to take decisions of life and death, for others and myself. I understand the importance of peace better than many of the politicians who speak of peace but never had the experience I had. For me, peace should provide security to the Jewish people and Israeli citizens. If it doesn't provide that, what kind of peace is that?" Sharon is determined never to find out. --With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem

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