If all those lopsided opinion polls are reliable, Israeli voters will install Ariel Sharon as their next prime minister on Tuesday, completing a most remarkable comeback for this native-born farmer whose long military and political record engenders considerable doses of both respect and scorn.

Resilient and stout at 72, Sharon has displayed an unusual capacity for grace in the face of a withering barrage of disparaging electoral rhetoric. The campaign team of resigned Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in concert with the Israeli Left and many noted Arab leaders, have labeled Sharon a "warmonger," trying to scare voters away. Barak himself has cited Sharon's role in the Lebanon War and in promoting settlement growth as factors that should disqualify him for the premiership.

But Sharon has maintained his trademark smile and confident stride. And the vast majority of Israelis have been equally unfazed, now ready to give him the chance to right the lurching ship of state.

Sharon's career has been a major focus of this snap election, with the left-leaning press rushing into print volumes of details about his checkered past, reminding the public exactly why he has been politically written off so many times. Are voters overlooking this past? Or is there another side to the story?

"I want to say something about my demonization," Sharon told YEDIOT AHARONOT recently. "After all, I am known as someone who eats Arabs for breakfast. This is baseless. People are killed in wars. But I never allowed the mistreatment of a prisoner, and I never humiliated anyone."

Should Sharon be forever exiled for Sabra and Shatila? Did he mislead Prime Minister Menachem Begin about the planned incursion into Lebanon? Was it a disservice to the nation to bolster the settlement movement, no matter what cabinet post he held?

TALENTED SOLDIER: Of Russian Jewish extract, Sharon was born near Kfar Saba, on a moshav plagued by marauders from neighboring Arab villages. At 13, he was already patrolling the community's fields at night, club and dagger in hand. At 14, he was initiated into the Palmach, the famed Jewish underground force, and developed keen skills at scouting hostile terrain.

With the War of Independence in 1948, Sharon served as a platoon leader and was wounded during the lengthy struggle to take the fortress at Latrun. As a young officer in the 1950s, he commanded the famous anti-terrorist "Unit 101," leading numerous successful retaliatory raids inside Gaza and Jordanian-held Judea/Samaria. During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he led a paratrooper brigade during the battle for control of the Mitla Pass.

By this time, Sharon had emerged as an able leader and brilliant strategist, but with a touch of brashness. IDF training is based on two models: The British tradition stresses a strict chain of command, while the Wingate tradition [first taught by British officer Orde Charles Wingate during the Mandate era] emphasizes individual initiative. Sharon tended toward the Wingate school of thought.

In the 1967 Six-Day War, Sharon led an armored division which breached Egyptian lines in the Sinai and opened the peninsula to conquering IDF forces. And in the Yom Kippur War, Sharon achieved legendary status with his decisive crossing of the Suez Canal and encirclement of the Egyptian Eighth Army at Kilometer 101.

POLITICAL PIONEER: Sharon left the army in 1974 to enter politics, and immediately played a major role in uniting the nationalist camp under the banner of the new Likud party, headed by Begin. When the Right rose to power in 1977, Sharon served as Minister of Agriculture and chaired the special ministerial committee for settlements, positions that allowed him to channel the nation's energy and resources into large-scale construction in Judea/Samaria and Gaza.

The Labor party had previously established a series of 25 "security" settlements in the strategic Jordan Valley and near the "Green Line," according to the Allon Plan. Sharon beefed up the Jordan Valley communities, added east-west arteries to access the narrow coastal plain via the Samarian mountain ridge, and planned a ring of protective neighborhoods around Jerusalem. Sharon also pressed plans for 56 new Jewish communities in the Galilee, where Jews were outnumbered by Israeli Arabs at the time. In addition, he joined hands with the biblically-inspired Gush Emunim ["Bloc of the Faithful"] to begin planting what some today refer to as "political" or "ideological" settlements in the heart of Judea/Samaria, eventually establishing 64 new settlements there.

Sharon's upbringing in a farm setting had ingrained in him a pioneering spirit and a deep attachment to the land of his Jewish forefathers. Using a "hands on" approach, he scouted out the familiar hilly terrain and selected areas uninhabited by Arabs for settlement. Besides returning Jews to the empty hilltops once home to the ancient Israelites, Sharon was also trying to block the path of invading forces and the rise of a Palestinian state. Sharon never quite realized his goal of populating the territories with 2 million Jews - there are now some 200,000 settlers - but his strategy has complicated subsequent efforts to apply the "land-for-peace" formula in these areas.

Sharon's record in promoting extensive Jewish settlement is marked by one glaring exception - Sinai. Sharon and then-Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan erected a "buffer zone" of Israeli towns along the eastern side of Sinai, and Sharon was out to expand it. But the dramatic journey of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977 sealed their fate.

Elevated to Defense Minister, Sharon was receptive to the prospects of peace with this ancient enemy. He considered Egypt a civilization that shared a biblical history with Israel. Egypt also wielded power in the Arab world. And like many Israelis, he did not consider the Sinai part of the biblical Land of Israel. So he came to terms with the Camp David accords and subsequent peace treaty, which called for a phased withdrawal from Sinai, despite the military risks he knew it entailed.

In April 1982, Sharon implemented the last phase of the Israeli evacuation from northern Sinai, including the Jewish towns of Ophira and Yamit. He reluctantly ordered the forced evacuation of Yamit, a community of 5,000 residents close to the Israeli border. Its inhabitants were evicted, buildings demolished and infrastructure uprooted, leaving a silent heap of desert ruins.

Sharon quickly resumed his patronage of the settlement enterprise, using various cabinet postings (industry and trade, construction and housing, national infrastructure) to bolster the movement through government subsidies, and privately aiding associations engaged in acquiring property in eastern Jerusalem. Sharon stirred a ruckus by personally buying a house once owned by Jews in the Muslim Quarter of the Jerusalem's Old City.

Finally, in yet another major contribution to the Zionist cause, Sharon showcased his flare for bold action by organizing the purchase of tens of thousands of caravans and a huge construction effort, in readiness for the flood of Russian Jewish immigrants that started to pour into Israel from the Soviet Union in 1989. His decisive action helped ensure that the wave of newcomers did not spend their first years in Israel living in tents, like so many returnees in the past.

EMBATTLED LEADER: The height, and nadir, of Sharon's political power came with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He has been charged with deliberately misleading the Begin Cabinet and the Knesset into approving the "Peace for Galilee" campaign with minimal objectives, while his real, secret intentions were to mobilize the IDF in the pursuit of more ambitious goals. Secondly, Sharon was held indirectly responsible for the massacre of some 800 Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

As Defense Minister, Sharon spearheaded the planning of Operation "Peace for Galilee," meant to free Israel's northern towns from incessant PLO terrorist attacks. The IDF had entered Lebanon on prior occasions to combat the harrowing threats from the PLO's entrenched army in southern Lebanon - known as "Fatah Land." The PLO had created a "state with a state," setting up its own roadblocks, running its own courts, imposing taxes and maintaining an independent militia of up to 20,000 heavily armed men, primarily to stage terrorist attacks on Israel. As the cross-border assaults grew in frequency and horror, Israel launched the "Litani Operation" in 1978, a limited incursion to drive the PLO north of the Litani River - 15 miles above the border.

The PLO quickly returned, bringing with it a heavy concentration of Katyusha rocket launchers and long-range artillery capable of hitting Israel's northern communities. As thousands of shells rained down on the Galilee, and the PLO scored several daring terrorist attacks in Israel and abroad, it became clear serious action was needed to cripple its capabilities.

Sharon began discussions in the Cabinet and Knesset for a strategy to invade and destroy the PLO presence in Lebanon, using the existing "Oranim Plan" from 1979 as a model. This plan called for the "annihilation of the terrorist threat... including in particular in Beirut" and for "neutralizing the Syrians through threatening maneuvers while attempting to avoid real fighting with them." From the outset, Sharon publicly advocated the maximalist tenets of Oranim - reaching Beirut, working for an Israel-friendly Maronite-led government, and rolling back Syrian influence. This was made clear to political leaders in Jerusalem, military commanders in the field, and even on the international stage in talks with US officials.

One IDF officer of note who reportedly backed Sharon's ideas was none other than Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak, then head of IDF Planning, who sent Sharon a private memo in March 1982 outlining similar plans for war in the North. Barak advocated "a swift operation" directed against Syrian targets as well, including surface-to-air missiles deployed in the Lebanon Valley and within Syria itself, presenting an opportunity for "massive use of our air and ground forces against ground forces in Lebanon or in the Golan Heights." According to a recent report in HA'ARETZ, Barak's plan proposed deception on many levels, each aimed at keeping different audiences "in the dark" - meaning Washington, Jerusalem and even colleagues within the IDF.

In May, 1982, the Israeli cabinet finally reviewed a plan submitted by IDF commander Raful Eitan which set a minimum objective of sweeping the PLO back about 25 miles north, thus removing the Galilee from firing range. Cabinet members acknowledged that the evolving battle may call for a deeper thrust and, at Sharon's request, a special security cabinet was to meet twice a day to supervise IDF operations. On June 5, the cabinet approved "Peace for Galilee" by near unanimous consent. And during the course of the war, each tactical move was first considered and voted on by the cabinet, meeting twice a day, and only then was Sharon authorized to command IDF maneuvers.

Towards the end of the Lebanon War, in mid-August, the IDF tightened its presence around Beirut and initiated a barrage of artillery attacks on PLO positions in the city. In reaction, the PLO scattered some 2,500 militiamen throughout West Beirut - particularly in the urban refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, which contained high-rise apartment buildings and underground mazes of tunnels, storehouses, bunkers, arsenals and command centers.

Israel decided in mid-September to establish control over West Beirut, including the neighborhoods of Sabra and Shatila, a move that came right as newly-elected president Bashir Gemayal was murdered by a Lebanese Christian working for the Damascus-controlled Syrian National Party. Reluctant to commit forces to house-to-house fighting, the IDF agreed to surround and close off the Palestinian neighborhoods while Lebanese Christian "Phalangist" forces commanded by the Gemayal family entered the towns to rid them of remaining terrorists.

It was under these conditions that the Phalangists entered Sabra and Shatila on September 16 and massacred about 800 Palestinians, many of them civilians. Soon after the gruesome attack, Sharon faced accusations that he had encouraged or permitted the attack. Two weeks later, Israel appointed a commission of inquiry to find out if, and to what extent, he was responsible. The three-man Kahan commission acknowledged that no Israeli soldier had taken any part in the killings, but found that Sharon "made a grave mistake when he ignored the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population in the refugee camps." He was eventually forced to resign as defense minister, although he stayed in the Begin government.

In his defense, Sharon has contended that IDF commanders instructed the Phalangist units to avoid harming civilians, and that no one expected the massacres to occur, based on the past performance of these IDF allies. In addition, Gemayal's assassin, a Christian, had been caught almost immediately.

Sharon successfully sued TIME magazine for libel in publishing an article alleging he actually encouraged the Maronite leadership to exact revenge. An appeal is still pending in another libel suit against HA'ARETZ; the case involves an article charging Sharon deceived Begin about his plans to push all the way to Beirut.

Over the years, there have been new revelations that tend to exonerate Sharon and point to a Syrian hand behind the massacres. A growing body of evidence suggests the killings were masterminded by one Elias Hobeika, a Lebanese Christian loyal to Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and operating at the top levels of Lebanese intelligence.

The most comprehensive source of published information on this connection was written by Hobeika's body guard, Robert Hatem, in a book banned in Lebanon. Hatem describes Hobeika as the leader of the "intelligence unit" of the Phalangist army responsible for the massacre. He was under strict orders not to resort to unnecessary violence, but ordered his men to carry out "total extermination, camps to be wiped out."

Journalists stationed in Lebanon report that Hobeika was the most feared Phalangist in Lebanon, and even served as a bodyguard to Bashir Gemayal before his death. But within a few years, Hoebika was openly defending Syria's control over Lebanon, while privately he had established close business ties with Rifaat Assad, brother of Hafez and overlord of the lucrative narco-terrorism industry in the Beka'a Valley.

When Palestinians worldwide marked the 18th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila this past September, a number of Arab press reports carried assertions by relatives of the victims accusing Hobeika for their deaths. He was never questioned or tried for his role, they complained, and he had just completed a term as a pro-Syrian member of Lebanon's parliament. The top Fatah official in the country also accused him of blocking erection of a monument for those killed. As a result, some analysts now contend Hobeika staged the massacre to further Syrian interests by setting the PLO and Maronites further at odds, defaming Israel, and thus presenting Damascus as the only power broker who could save Lebanon from self-destruction.

BOUNCING BACK: Ariel Sharon has managed to recover from the Lebanon War and other setbacks, serving in the cabinets of prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu. When Netanyahu resigned as Likud chairman after his electoral defeat in 1999, Sharon took over stewardship of the party and as leader of the Opposition. He now stands poised to assume the one position of high office denied to him thus far - head of the government. As his long-time associate Uri Dan quipped after the Kahan commission findings: "Those who don't want to accept [Sharon] as defense minister will have to accept him as prime minister."

It is difficult to gauge at this point exactly how the recent efforts to once again tarnish Sharon's image and paint him as a "butcher" of Arabs will impact Israel and the region. Israelis appear foremost concerned about personal security in this election and are turning to him in hopes he will better manage the current conflict with the Palestinians. They also trust that he will pursue peace talks, but drive a harder bargain than Barak, who pressed on with ever more generous concessions in the midst of the violence.

As for the Arab parties, there is a strange sense of justice in the fact that the orchestrated riots after Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on September 28 set off a chain of events that have catapulted him to the top. Just his mere presence at the helm will test their true intentions like nothing else has before. And contrary to all the talk of looming war and disaster, Sharon aides say there may be a show of begrudging respect for the old war hero.

The story has been circulating that when Sharon refused to shake the hand of Yasser Arafat at the Wye River talks in October 1998, the PLO chief promptly saluted the ex-general.

And Sharon often tells of that poignant moment when Anwar Sadat landed at Ben-Gurion airport on the way to Jerusalem, and peace. As the Egyptian leader was descending from his plane, Begin and his Cabinet were lined up to greet him on the tarmac, with Sharon some five dignitaries down in the receiving line. Sadat was heard mumbling: "Where's Sharon? Where's Sharon?" As they finally came face-to-face, Sadat revealed that he had come to end the state of war with Israel because he finally realized he could not defeat Sharon and the IDF on the battlefield.

Researched and written by David Parsons, Rashel Gibbs.
SOURCES: "Warrior," by Ariel Sharon; "History of Israel," by Howard M. Sachar; "The War of Desperation," by John Laffin; "From Beirut to Jerusalem," by Thomas Friedman; "Blood Libel," by Uri Dan; "The War for Lebanon," by Itamar Rabinovich; "Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East," by Avraham Sela; JERUSALEM POST; JERUSALEM REPORT; NEW YORK TIMES; HA'ARETZ; Lebanon Foundation for Peace; Personal interview with Ariel Sharon.
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