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The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
takes a look at the controversial past of the Likud leader
 real 56k

Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 12:53 GMT
Sharon: A changed man?
Ariel Sharon celebrating his victory
Ariel Sharon won the election in a landslide victory
By BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson

I have to keep reminding myself it's the same man.

I watched him standing by his wife's grave, like any other elderly widower left alone in the world. I heard him say peace required painful sacrifices from both sides. I listened to him calling on his political enemies to join him. He clearly meant it.

That bulky form, the quiff of white hair, the slight squint in the pouchy eyes - of course it's the same man.

Ariel Sharon is older, that's all, and some of the ferocity has leaked out of him. But plenty of friends of mine, Jews as well as Arabs, still think he's a war criminal.

Controversial past

Palestinian woman reinforcing her home
Palestinians are bracing themselves for more violence
To the end of my days, I think I'll remember the events of that summer in Beirut in 1982.

Standing on the roof of the Alexandre Hotel, watching Israeli jets, on his orders, strafing apartment blocks a couple of hundred yards away, and seeing the terrible white smoke which meant that people were being burned alive in there.

Or standing near the emergency ward of the hospital in Sabra, watching kids of 11 or 12 pulling the bigger pieces of cluster-bomb shrapnel out of people's bodies, so the surgeons could concentrate on the smaller, more life-threatening fragments.

There was enough horror there, enough pain, to haunt us all for the rest of our lives.

And then there was that September morning in Beirut when my crew and I found long lines of people hurrying away from the Palestinian area of Sabra and Chatila in terror.

But what was it? They were too frightened to say. We drove on until we found a frantic Israeli army captain shepherding Palestinians into a football stadium.

Palestinian massacre

"You're going to kill these people," I screamed at him. "No," he shouted back, "I'm trying to protect them. Terrible things have been going on here. You've got to tell the world."

Is Sharon the one who's changed? Or is it Israel itself?

We searched down the side-roads, and came across the bodies - piles of them, four or five deep.

Somewhere a girl starting screaming horribly - a huge cross had been carved in her body in an alley close by. Lebanese Christians had carried out the massacre - Ariel Sharon's friends.

Afterwards an Israeli judicial inquiry established his close association with what had happened. At last, many people thought, that man is finished for good.

And now, 18 years later, they've watched his election to the premiership, by a landslide unmatched in Israeli history. So is he the one who's changed? Or is it Israel itself?

Hardline views

Let's look at that for a moment. In his wilderness years, Ariel Sharon used to say things that appalled liberal Israelis. Jewish settlers, he said, should establish themselves all round Palestinian towns and villages.

Arab reading the paper on the day of Sharon's victory
Arabs are anxious of the future with Sharon
The government should build a road network joining these settlements to Israel proper, so the Palestinians would be divided and isolated. Oh yes, and any Palestinian mixed up in terrorism should be taken out without any legal niceties.

But successive Labour governments, perfectly sincere about the need to make peace with the Palestinians, have also done these things. Under Ehud Barak, there were regular extra-judicial killings of Palestinian activists.

Israel has become like Ariel Sharon, then. But can he do the deal with the Palestinians that Ehud Barak failed to do? Does he want to? Does he even realise that one has to be made?

Moderate Palestinians and Jews alike tell themselves it needed General de Gaulle, a right-wing strongman, to make the necessary concessions which brought about France's withdrawal from Algeria in the early 1960s. Is Ariel Sharon the Israeli de Gaulle?

His biggest problem, if he wants to do a deal, is the Israeli parliamentary system, which makes it so hard to form a coalition and hold it together.

Sharon may have won by a landslide, but so did Ehud Barak, a year and a half ago. It didn't help him much.

Prospects for peace

Does Sharon have any vision beyond merely keeping Israel's foot on the Palestinian neck?

Chatila children
Chatila children have grown up in the wake of the 1982 massacre
Does he understand how much stronger the Palestinians have become, thanks to the intifada which began after his walk on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif, back in September?

Has he, can he have changed?

Those heaps of bodies in the alleyways of Chatila, those writhing figures on the stretchers in the Sabra hospital, all say no.

And yet there was that phrase in his acceptance speech: "Peace requires painful sacrifices from both sides."

Israelis want peace badly, and they are ready to make painful sacrifices. But Sharon himself has to mean it.

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See also:

07 Feb 01 | Middle East
Ariel Sharon: Controversial hardliner
08 Feb 01 | Middle East
Deadlock looms over Mid-East peace
09 Oct 98 | Middle East
Ariel Sharon appointed foreign minister
07 Oct 98 | Middle East
Middle East summit set for Washington
20 Aug 98 | Middle East
Israel plans Golan expansion
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