The Tough Guy Behind Sharon

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It's not as though Ariel Sharon is reluctant to listen to a hard line on security, but it helps when the tough talk comes from someone he trusts. Sharon's Mr. Security is Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic spy and security service. (The Mossad handles foreign intelligence.) According to Israeli intelligence officials, he has had a more profound effect on the Prime Minister's handling of Palestinian terrorists than any other adviser. "He has the Prime Minister's ear," says a senior Israeli security official. With 27 years' service in the Shin Bet, the mild-looking Dichter, who once worked as an undercover, in-flight security guard for El Al, knows how to talk to Sharon, who likes to hear details and facts rather than opinions.

A workaholic who sleeps three hours a night, Dichter, 50, who is married and has three children, headed the Shin Bet's Gaza operations before he was chosen in 1995 to rebuild the organization's VIPprotection unit following the lapses that enabled an assassin to kill Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that year. Dichter was promoted to the top job in 2000 by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak. When the intifadeh broke out five months into Dichter's five-year term, he initiated a string of high-profile counteroperations that impressed Sharon even before he became Prime Minister. To kill Hamas operatives, Dichter had his agents hide explosives in telephone booths and car-seat headrests; he pushed them to cut planning time for operations from months to mere hours. Dichter and Sharon share the same view of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: he is useless as a partner to Israel. The Shin Bet chief recently recalled a meeting with Arafat in 1996, amid an earlier Hamas bombing campaign. Arafat asked Dichter how he could improve the situation. Dichter, who is fluent in Arabic, replied that Arafat should arrest Mohammed Deif, then Hamas' military chief and a household name among Palestinians and Israelis. Arafat looked at his aides and asked, plainly disingenuously, "Mohammed who?" Nevertheless, Dichter has argued against exiling Arafat, believing he would be more dangerous where Israel could not keep an eye on him.

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Israeli military sources say Dichter was instrumental in planning Sharon's reinvasion of West Bank cities a year ago, telling the Prime Minister that for the Shin Bet to protect Israelis from terrorism, it had to be present in the Palestinian towns, not poised around their edges. Dichter, according to a senior security official, has warned that the road map, the peace plan being pushed by President Bush, doesn't sufficiently pressure the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorist groups. He has at times been at odds with officials from Israeli military intelligence who believe that Hamas launches its attacks in waves spurred by diplomatic or military developments. In contrast, Dichter, say Israeli security officials, has advised Sharon that Hamas tries to strike constantly, succeeding only when it beats Israeli security. In that assessment, political maneuvers can't put off Hamas these days; only assassinations and arrests can.