Ariel Sharon

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Sharon on his farm in the Negev

Why We Chose Him:
Talk about a comeback. Sharon had looked like political roadkill in 1983, after a government inquiry found that he had "indirect responsibility" for allowing Israel's Lebanese allies to systematically slaughter hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps guarded by Israeli forces. As Israelis bridled under the burden of their 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, the man responsible seemed to have little chance of being elected prime minister — even less so after his high-profile visit to the Temple Mount last September appeared to touch off a new Palestinian uprising. But Ariel Sharon has a remarkably thick skin, tanned in the heat of battle and a quarter century in the upper echelons of Israel's fractious political system.

Résumé Redux
  • As a general he was dubbed "The Lion of Israel" for his daring victories in the wars of 1967 and 1973
  • Quit as defense minister in 1983 after a government inquiry found him "indirectly" responsible for a massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut
  • Architect of Israel's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon
  • Champion of the Israeli settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza
  • Opposition leader whose visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount last September sparked the violent protests that launched the current Palestinian intifada
  • Fierce critic of the peace process, who has withdrawn the concessions Barak offered to the Palestinians
  • Even his own party might not, in normal circumstances, have risked putting him up for the job he now occupies — his appointment as leader of the Likud party in 1999 was viewed as a caretaker choice following Benjamin Netanyahu's defeat. But the circumstances of this week's elections were far from normal. Barak had called them under a recent constitutional provision that allowed for direct prime ministerial elections without reelecting parliament, which made the job — heading a fragile, deeply divided governing coalition — highly unappetizing to the more popular Netanyahu. But Sharon relished the opportunity to fight for a prize that had always eluded him.

    It would be facile to suggest that history moves according to anyone's plans, but the conspiracy-minded may be tempted to note that Barak's political demise began that sunny afternoon last fall when Sharon marched up the Temple Mount, and it was the general who claimed the spoils when the voters sealed Barak's fate.

    All eyes are now on Sharon's next move, which means he has achieved what military commanders most covet: the strategic initiative, that ability to force your adversaries to respond to your moves rather than having to respond to theirs.

    Sharon wants peace, of course, but not on the terms Barak and Yasser Arafat had been negotiating. He has ruled out sharing Jerusalem and plans to maintain Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But he has also signaled that he won't seek to reverse previous agreements by restoring Israeli control over areas ceded to Arafat. Essentially, he wants to freeze the process and maintain stability through interim agreements with the Palestinians. Sharon may also be inclined to underscore his bottom line by ordering a harsher response than Barak did to the continuing intifada.

    Sharon's election victory has certainly altered the strategic options confronting the Palestinians. Do they pursue negotiations within the limits he has set, or do they raise the ante and tempt the wrath of a man not known for restraint, in the hope that this will prompt the U.S. to restrain Israel? There are plenty of reasons to expect a flare-up of violence following Sharon's election, and its potential to spin out of control may limit the Bush administration's ability to scale back on Washington's direct involvement in Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

    Ariel Sharon may have spent most of the "peace process" decade on the sidelines, but he now dominates the horizon. And that's a considerable feat for a politician left for dead more than once.