Person of the Week: Ariel Sharon

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OREL COHEN/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Once again, our disclaimer: TIME.com's Person of the Week is not a peace prize or an achievement award; it's an acknowledgment of the nominee's influence over the events that have dominated the week's headlines. And as hundreds of Israeli tanks rolled back into the cities of the West Bank and the Middle East crisis threatened to spiral out of control, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was that person. He appeared to hold in his hands the fate of the entire region — and perhaps the fate of the U.S. war on terrorism, too.

Let's begin, for irony's sake, in January 2001, when thousands of draft notices arrived in the mail at the homes of Israeli army reservists in standard-issue brown envelopes bearing the legend "Chapter 8" — Israel's code for a call-up for war. Those notices were fake, part of a sneaky effort to reduce Sharon's 20-point lead over Ehud Barak two weeks before a crucial election by suggesting that if Sharon were elected, the draft notices would be real. Sharon won, and sure enough, a little over a year later the real draft notices arrived, calling up some 30,000 reservists for an assault on the major Palestinian towns on the West Bank. But Sharon confounded the assumptions of last year's election pranksters: Most of those drafted went willingly, eager for the opportunity to hit back at a wave of suicide bombings that has made everyday life in Israel unbearable.

Sharon has made a career out of confounding the odds. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Even two years ago, the idea that the former general known as one of Israel's leading hawks would become Prime Minister in a landslide victory of would have been laughed at. So, too, the idea that the fierce enemy of the Oslo peace process and longtime champion of the movement to settle Israelis in the occupied lands of the West Bank and Gaza could govern in coalition with the likes of Oslo architect and arch-dove Shimon Peres. Equally outlandish, perhaps, was the idea that a man so out of step with the prevailing drift in U.S. policy to settle the Middle East conflict via a land-for-peace swap would manage to turn the White House to his way of thinking. But a week ago, Sharon rolled the troops into the West Bank with nary a peep out of Peres and the White House — except to draw the line at killing or exiling Yasser Arafat.

That, of course, is a deeply frustrating restriction to Sharon, who only a month ago publicly regretted letting Arafat live when he had the opportunity to kill him in Beirut in 1982. The two men may simply be militant representatives of rival nationalisms, but as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana observed this week, anybody who has dealt with them can't miss the fact that for Arafat and Sharon, it's also personal.

By week's end the Bush administration was urging Sharon to withdraw, and the absence of a clear endgame in "Operation Defensive Shield" caused considerable consternation in the Israeli media. But Ariel Sharon is a practical man, a field commander more comfortable with tactical improvisation than grand strategic visions. His preferred method is to change the "facts on the ground," creating new faits accompli that develop a life of their own and change the terms of grand strategic debate. That's the rationale for the settlement movement — to stake an Israeli claim on the lands captured in 1967 by simply seizing them and setting down roots rather than awaiting the outcome of any negotiations. Today the fate of those same settlements is a key point of contention in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Even Sharon's rise to Prime Minister may have been more a product of circumstance than strategic design. Sharon, as the elder statesman of the Likud Party, was made caretaker leader two years ago after the party's candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, was trounced by Barak. And it was in his capacity as opposition leader that he led a phalanx of security men onto Jerusalem's Temple Mount in September 2000, to underline his opposition to Barak's negotiations over sharing it with the Palestinians. The visit sparked the first riots of what became the Al Aqsa intifada. And the intifada brought Barak tumbling down, opening the road to Sharon becoming prime minister — thanks to Barak's use of an arcane electoral law to keep Likud's preferred candidate, the more popular Netanyahu, out of the race.

Sharon won on promises of security, but the unending wave of attacks on Israelis has seen his popularity tumble — and amplified the challenge of the resurgent Netanyahu. "Operation Defensive Shield" has been Sharon's response, an attempt to transform the situation on the ground through a massive military strike he hopes will hobble Palestinian terror cells and militias, and also eliminate his nemesis, Arafat, as a factor in Israeli political life.

By week's end, the Bush administration was clearly worried that the facts on the ground created by "Defensive Shield" may close the road back to peace, and began to urgently call a halt. But next week's headlines may be determined in large part by how Sharon chooses to respond.