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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 20:25 GMT
'Sly' Sharon evades reality
Pro-Sharon rally
Polls forecast a landslide victory for Mr Sharon
By BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Adams

On the road into work, the face of Ariel Sharon haunts me. The campaign poster is shrewd, but disturbing.

A vast, fleshy face, rising above a regulation shirt and tie and topped with a thin corona of the purest white hair.

The head rests, not too casually, on a raised hand, clenched against the candidate's ample cheek in a gesture of firmness but with an index finger outstretched towards his temple to lend a thoughtful, professorial touch.

The blue of the tie and the eyes and the white of the hair perfectly match the colours of the national flag, just visible over his shoulder - his right shoulder, of course.

His eyes are narrowed and piercing and there's a half smile. It's all very good. Sharon the resolute statesman, Sharon the father of the nation.

Avoiding questions

But when I look into the face of Israel's next prime minister, the single word that comes to mind is sly.

Unless something very remarkable has happened, there is simply no way he can deliver lasting peace

Which is perhaps not surprising. Mr Sharon's whole campaign has been sly - a carefully choreographed effort to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, air-brush the man's history and avoid any tricky questions.

Media access has been severely limited. This weekend's edition of the most serious Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, is full of insights from the current Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, culled from conversations conducted last week.

When it comes to Mr Sharon, the paper admits that it's had to make do with an interview conducted more than a year ago.

'The bulldozer'

I've met the man Israelis call "the bulldozer" a few times over the years. He always makes a big impression.

The very picture of a man shielding himself from reality

On a bright, windy day in 1998, he flew to a West Bank settlement, with other members of Binyamin Netanyahu's government.

With Israel's narrow coastal plain stretched out below us, and the Mediterranean Sea shimmering in the background, he spoke of the country's narrow waist, just a few miles wide, of the strategic need to hold onto places like this, of the vital water resources under our feet, and so on.

Arik, his other nickname, was in his element - he is, after all, more closely identified with Israel's colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip than any other politician alive.

But the image that sticks in my mind from that day is the sight of the burly Mr Sharon, emerging from a military helicopter, its huge rotors still churning the air, and pulling his black jacket up over his head to protect his fine white hair.

He stood there, absurd for a moment but the very picture of a man shielding himself from reality. Nothing he's done or said since has altered my impression of him.

Man of the people

A few months earlier, I saw him at the Sea of Galilee appearing at a local council meeting. Again, he was utterly at ease, joking and chatting with everyone in the room.

Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon presents an image of affability
He told me he was proud of his record of service at every stage in the country's development, adding that he hadn't finished yet. Before leaving, he told me he had no regrets.

But other Israelis do. They remember that in 1982, as defence minister under Menachem Begin, Mr Sharon sent the Israeli army into Lebanon - the start of a long and largely fruitless war that lasted 18 years.

Countless lives were lost, including hundreds of Palestinian civilians massacred by Christian militiamen in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

An Israeli commission of enquiry later established that Mr Sharon had allowed the militiamen into the camps and told him to draw the appropriate conclusions.

Parents' fears

He was sacked as defence minister. Up and down Israel, there are parents who blame Mr Sharon for taking away their sons.

They're frightened of what he may do.

Mr Sharon talks of negotiating with Yasser Arafat - a man he still calls a murderer and a liar.

But unless something very remarkable has happened to Mr Sharon in this, his eighth decade, then there is simply no way he can deliver the kind of lasting peace this region so desperately needs.

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See also:

02 Feb 01 | Middle East
Barak defiant over election
01 Feb 01 | Middle East
Five dead in new Mid-East violence
26 Jan 01 | Middle East
Arab fears over Sharon-Barak battle
01 Feb 01 | Media reports
Palestinians expect Sharon 'disaster'
26 Jan 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Israel's leadership battle
02 Jan 01 | Middle East
Barak's election gamble
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