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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 06:53 GMT 07:53 UK
Sharon: A master of re-invention

The BBC's Edward Stourton has spent 12 months following the dramatic changes of the Arab-Israeli crisis. At the centre of these changes, he argues, has been Ariel Sharon, the veteran Israeli leader who has managed to transform his politics and maintain power.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sits alone in the Knesset
Mr Sharon's most recent policies seem at odds with his earlier ideas

"The man likes to eat, and sometimes he spends hours in here," says Gil Hoffman, one of the Jerusalem Post's correspondents in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

We are in the Knesset's canteen, and his somewhat waspish comment is aimed at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Now Sharon is the only Knesset member who has his own seat in the cafeteria - not because he's prime minister, but because that's just been his seat for the last 30 years and everyone knows it is his seat," he says.

There are not many politicians who could reinvent themselves in their mid-70s in the way Ariel Sharon has done.

He is part of a generation of Israeli leaders - Labour's Shimon Peres and Tommy Lapid of the secular Shinui party are of a similar vintage - who seem to be making a final push to break the stalemate in the Middle East at a time when they could be forgiven for opting for the easy life.

Role reversal?

There is a sense that they feel a responsibility to make some sort of progress before handing on the torch to the leaders of the future - and against all the odds, it is Ariel Sharon who has done most to make that possible.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

His unilateral disengagement plan - for an Israeli withdraw from Gaza and a small area of the West Bank - seems to represent a reversal of almost everything he has fought for in his military and political careers.

"He is doing something that is contrary, totally contrary to his past", says Tommy Lapid, "He is walking a tightrope - I think it is very admirable on his part".

When unilateral disengagement was first announced in December 2003, it was the unilateral element that attracted most attention.

He was up to his old tricks, his critics complained, pushing ahead with his own agenda as a way of avoiding negotiations with the Palestinians.

They claimed he was using the disengagement plan as a distraction from what was happening on the West Bank; many Palestinians argue that the barrier the Israeli government says it is putting up to keep suicide bombers at bay is, in fact, a means of cementing Israel's hold on Palestinian territory.

Warrior politician

It all seemed very much of a piece with the familiar style of the warrior politician who led the invasion of Lebanon and played such a prominent role in the settler movement.

But as first President Bush and then Tony Blair accepted the principle of disengagement, the full implications of the Sharon plan began to sink in in Israel itself.

It was built on the logic that Israel would anyway have to leave Gaza one day, so it made sense to do it on Israel's own terms.

Giora Eiland, Ariel Sharon's national security adviser, told us "since there are no real vital interests of Israel in this land area it was relatively easy to make a decision to leave it".

But that did not make it any less traumatic for the settler movement which the prime minister had once done so much to nurture.

Political magician

Settlers would be giving up their homes and their land, and the possibility that Israeli soldiers would have to force some of them out at the point of a gun seemed - and still seems - very real.

Israeli settlers and supporters during a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan.
Israeli settlers face the possibility of being forced from their homes

It rapidly became apparent that Mr Sharon would face tough opposition from within both his own party and some of the other parties in his coalition government.

At the same time the Palestinian leadership remained extremely suspicious of his intentions. "The whole idea of unilateralism was to replace negotiation with dictation," said the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat.

Good generals need skill and luck.

Ariel Sharon's special skill is a conjuror-like mastery of the arcane business of coalition building; whenever a significant source of his support threatens to flake away he seems to know exactly where to look for a new one.

Raanan Gissin, his spokesman, says that as a general he learnt an important lesson; if you are going to try something daring you need to be sure of involving as many constituencies as possible.

"It's not enough to have a small majority it has to be a broad majority reflecting the consensus among the people," he says.

"You know why? Not just because it's good to have everyone supported, but that's the hedge against the civil war."

Mr Sharon's luck was delivered by a unique combination of an election and, rather ghoulishly, a death.

The re-election of George Bush meant he was able to rely on a sympathetic ear in the White House, and the death of Yasser Arafat made way for a new kind of Palestinian leader.

Quite where disengagement will lead of course remains uncertain, but that it will happen now seems beyond doubt.

A Year in the Arab Israeli Crisis will be broadcast on Tuesdays at 1900GMT on BBC Radio 4 from 19 April and on BBC World Service Monday 25 April, Monday 2 May, Monday 9 May and Monday 16 May at 0805, 1205, 1805 GMT.

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