Interview: Ariel Sharon

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Matt Rees and World editor Romesh Ratnesar for his first magazine interview since securing passage of his disengagement plan in the Israeli parliament. Excerpts:

TIME: This is a very beautiful house.

SHARON: It's the fifth year that I'm here.

TIME: And how many more years will you be here?

SHARON: I'm not in a hurry. I'm here and I'm not intending to leave the place.

TIME: If you were to think back to when you were a young army officer, what kind of country did you think Israel would be in 2005?

SHARON: I thought then that we'd have many more Jews and that's what really happened. I hope now that we'll be able to have more of them. Even now I regard as the most important thing for the government that I lead is of course to have more Jews here. Within the coming 15 years I believe we'll be able to bring here another 1 million Jews as newcomers. I didn't expect back then that after 57 years Jerusalem would still be facing dangers. I didn't think then it would take so long. But it happened. We could not live with terror. We had to act against terror, to retaliate. It's still the main problem. And looking forward I believe that in order really to achieve peace here there should be a full cessation of terror, of hostilities, of incitement.

TIME: In your long career you've survived things that would've destroyed lesser leaders. Recently you've had legal investigations, a revolt in your party, Yasser Arafat and the intifadeh. Do you feel that destiny is preserving you for some great moment that's coming now?

SHARON: I wouldn't go so far to say that destiny preserves me. I managed to survive and to succeed. The strength that I have comes from irrigating the citrus plantation, ploughing in the vineyard, guarding the melon fields at night. I believe that's what gave me the strength.

TIME: Do you still believe that the existence of a Jewish state is imperiled? Or is that no longer a question in your mind?

SHARON: First, I believe that the Jewish state will exist forever. I want to tell you a personal story from my childhood. I was working with my father, who was an agronomist. It was very, very hot and I was dead thirsty, and there were thousands and thousands of small flies that entered my nose and eyes. When my father saw me tired, he'd stop for a minute and rest on the plough's tiller. He'd lift his hand behind him and say, 'Look how much we've done already.' Then with greater energy, he'd charge the hill. When I have worries, I remember this story. I'd say now, Look how much we have done already.

TIME: People are uncertain about your next step after the withdrawal from Gaza. What is it?

SHARON: Once we accomplish the withdrawal and there is complete quiet, terrorist organizations should be dismantled, their weapons should be collected, there should be reforms of the Palestinian Authority—mostly in their security apparatus, but not only in security—once that will happen then we will move to the Road Map. We are committed to the Road Map. The Palestinians committed themselves to the Road Map. But I'll tell you in this part of the world, it's different. Declarations, promises, speeches, even signing agreements all are meaningless. Only acts are meaningful. I am ready to make painful compromises. But there's one thing we are not going to compromise at all: when it comes to security of Israeli citizens and the State of Israel, there are not going to be any compromises—not now and not in the future.As a Jew, it is my historic responsibility to defend the Jewish people. I feel this responsibility for the survival of the Jewish people.We're not going to accept any decision by anybody else about security of the State of Israel. It is our role and only our role. I told everyone, the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians, 'Don't try to put any pressure on us, because when it comes to this issue we are not going to accept it.

TIME: It sounds as if the kind of timetable you have in mind might be different to the one the Bush administration say it has in mind.

SHARON: It's very, very clear that you cannot move to the next phase unless the former one has been fully accomplished. Of course I would like to do it as early as possible. But it depends on the Palestinians. By now I don't see an effort by the Palestinian Authority to give an answer to terror. Terror continues. But I did not lose my hopes with Abu Mazen. He believes that Yasser Arafat caused the suffering of the Palestinians by carrying out a strategy of terror, and he caused the deaths of thousands of Jews, of Israelis. He understands that. But it is not enough to understand, to say, to promise, to declare. Only one thing is taken into consideration: only action.

TIME: Do you have any other reservations about Abu Mazen's ability to do the job?

SHARON: He understands the dangers of terror. But at the same time he signed an agreement with the most radical terrorist organizations. In this agreement, he took upon himself not to collect their weapons, not to dismantle them. I'm afraid that might cause him many difficulties in the future. I think it was a mistake.

TIME: Do you expect to have to withdraw from more settlements in the West Bank?

SHARON: If you ask me is there going to be a second phase of disengagement, the answer's no. Disengagement is one phase. Then we have to start to negotiate the Road Map.There's not going to be any second phase of disengagement.

TIME: In what way? How does disengagement push Palestinians to do the things that they're not doing already?

SHARON: If they implement all that they promised, there will be quiet. They have to stop terror.

TIME: How do you feel personally now when the settlers accuse you of betraying them?

SHARON: I didn't betray them. Look, we had a dream. We haven't managed to accomplish all the dream. I know it's very painful, very hard.

TIME: Do you have any fear for your own personal safety?

SHARON: You don't have to volunteer to be hit. But it doesn't affect me at all. It's strange for me. All my life I defended Jews. So now suddenly I have to be protected from Jews.

TIME: Do you think that animosity directed toward you will fade as time goes on, or will you for the rest of your life need to be protected against your own people?

SHARON: I've been under security protection since 1978. I've seen things change over many years. This was a very hard decision, but I was fully convinced that it's the right decision so I took it. When you lead a nation, you have to take decisions.

TIME: Have you changed? Has your view of what's necessary to insure Israel's security different? Or have circumstances changed?

SHARON: The circumstances changed. Many years passed, but I have not changed my mind. But I believe what we have done [in the settlements] was important. We had a dream. The circumstances have changed. One thing I know, I'm not going to make any compromises when it comes to security. There's no other place Jews can secure themselves by themselves.

TIME: So you have no plans to retire in a couple of years? You'll keep going?

SHARON: As long as I'm needed. I'll be ready to serve. I look forward with optimism. We need the Jews here. Move to Israel! Move to Israel!