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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    After winning election in 2001, Sharon gave little indication that he planned to pull back at all. His first years in office were dominated by the Palestinian intifadeh, which killed 1,058 Israelis. In response, Sharon sent Israeli troops into Palestinian towns and erected a fence along much of the length of the West Bank to separate Israel from the Palestinians. Although the terrorist attacks subsided, Sharon rejected the idea of resuming peace talks with Arafat. Instead, he argued, Israel needed to withdraw to a defensible line and wait for a new, more moderate Palestinian leader to emerge. In the fall of 2003, Deputy Prime Minister Olmert gave an interview to an Israeli newspaper in which he suggested a unilateral withdrawal from much of the occupied territories--an idea that Sharon had long scorned. Sharon phoned Olmert's Jerusalem home. "Ehud, where did I catch you?" the Prime Minister asked. "I'm at home," Olmert said. "Is your home still in our hands," Sharon asked, "or did you give it up to the Palestinians?" The two men laughed, but soon after, they met at Sharon's office for Olmert to lay out his plan. "I'm with you 100%," Sharon said.

    As it turns out, Sharon's plan doesn't go as far. While he intends to pull all 8,500 Israeli settlers out of the 17 Gaza Strip settlements, as well as an additional 1,500 from four locations in the northern West Bank, Sharon has repeatedly insisted that Israel will never abandon the large West Bank settlement blocs that the Palestinians most despise. But Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza represents a personal acknowledgment that Israel cannot remain in the Palestinian territories indefinitely--a view, polls show, that is shared by the vast majority of Israelis. "It's very important that the precedent of uprooting settlements is set by the father of the settlements," says Sarid, the veteran dove. "That way, when additional withdrawals are needed, it'll be much easier."

    That's also why Sharon may pay a heavy political price. Sharon has tried to stamp out opposition to disengagement from within his own party by arguing that he initiated the plan to avoid having one imposed on him by Washington. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who recently resigned from Sharon's Cabinet to protest the unilateral withdrawal, says Sharon told him last June that "even though Arafat isn't fulfilling his commitments, the world will start pressuring us." But Sharansky and other right-wing critics say pulling out of Gaza without demanding any concessions from the Palestinians will make Israel more vulnerable, not less, by allowing Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, to portray the withdrawal as the fruit of its attacks on settlers and soldiers in Gaza, boosting the likelihood of a renewed assault in the West Bank. Says former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Sharon rival who voted for the disengagement plan but now criticizes it: "The only way to defeat terrorism is to rob it of its hope for victory. Instead, we've given it renewed hope for victory."

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