Sharon: Israeli politician -- and warrior

It was called ''Arik's war.'' And its architect, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel ''Arik'' Sharon, the man responsible for the bombing of Beirut and - he believes - the Palestinian exodus from the city, has gone to Washington as a victor with no apologies to offer.

United States officials may be angry at Mr. Sharon's military tactics, which nearly torpedoed the American mediating effort, but they will listen closely to his views on removing Syrian troops from Lebanon and on the future of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.

This is because General Sharon - a man who inspires extremes of adulation and hatred at home and is known as ''the bulldozer'' not just for his girth but also for his personality - has demonstrated that he is a leader who does what he says. And despite sharp criticism both at home and abroad of his tactics in the Lebanon war, he has emerged triumphant in the view of observers here. They say he is the strongest political figure in Israel with the exception of Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Mr. Sharon is a larger-than-life character - unquestionably grave but unpredictable and restless - who has consistently ignored the norms of behavior of more conventional politicians and soldiers in pursuit of his aims. Those aims include the prime ministership of Israel.

''Arik Sharon only knows frontal attacks,'' says someone who knows him well. ''That is how he fought the Arabs, and that is how he intends to storm and capture the state of Israel.''

Now aged 54, this man who has distinguished himself as one of Israel's most daring generals - the hero of the 1973 war, the catalyst for the formation of the governing Likud Party, the architect of Israel's policy of massive Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank and of current policy toward the Palestinians - aroused the most violent extremes of emotion in his own country even before the war in Lebanon.

One backer called him ''a giant among midgets of the leadership of Israel''; another, ''the greatest of all commanders in the history of Israel.'' He has been called both ''ruthless'' and ''charming,'' ''superficial'' and ''sophisticated.'' But supporters and opponents agree on his strength and determination. Prime Minister Begin, in a supposed jest that he later retracted, said if Mr. Sharon ever became defense minister, he would soon ring the prime minister's office with tanks.

Much of the controversy in Mr. Sharon's military and political life has swirled around a history of riding roughshod over orders and creating his own realities by whatever methods necessary. No military or political superior has yet succeeded in making him toe the line.

Born to Russian immigrants on a communal farm, he was raised on a hard diet of farm work and study that helped develop his iron will. He began his military career as a teen-ager in Israel's war of independence.

But controversy followed soon after. As head of special commando Unit 101, formed in the early 1950s to launch cross-border reprisal acts for Palestinian terror raids into Israel, he made one raid on a Jordanian village that killed 69 people, including women and children. That incident elicited a public apology from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In February 1955, another Sharon-lead raid into the Gaza Strip killed 37 sleeping Egyptian soldiers, infuriating Prime Minister Moshe Sharrett and by some account prompting Egypt's President Nasser to turn to the Soviet bloc for arms.

In 1956, Sharon defied orders by the Israeli chief of staff during the Sinai campaign and lead his paratroop unit into an ambush that cost 38 lives and earned him the hostility of several future Israeli generals. In 1971-72 his successful campaign to eradicate Palestinian terrorism from the Gaza Strip brought a reprimand from Gen. Moshe Dayan for its brutality.

Deprived of the coveted post of commander in chief by the host of enemies he had made, Sharon left the military for politics. He returned temporarily during the 1973 war to flaunt military orthodoxy by leading a daring crossing of the Suez Canal that encircled much of Egypt's Army and made him a hero to the Israeli public. Extolled by young followers as ''Arik, King of Israel,'' he again won the enmity of his superiors, whom he publicly criticized for ineptitude while he still was in uniform.

Sharon's ruthless and unpredictable means of achieving his goals were fully evident in the war in Lebanon. For months before the war, the defense minister made publicly clear, both at home and to the US, his belief that Israel should invade Lebanon to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization. The question of whether Mr. Sharon's campaign exceeded Israel's original war aims is being hotly debated here.

But one noted expert, Zeev Schiff, the military correspondent of the independent daily Ha'aretz, wrote: ''I claim Sharon did not deceive the ministers. They deceived themselves. He maneuvered, created accomplished facts, pulled the government after him, but got them to agree.''

But Sharon overstepped the mark when he ordered massive bombing of west Beirut on Aug. 12, when negotiations for a PLO evacuation were near completion. This move, on which he did not consult the Israeli Cabinet, prompted an angry call from President Ronald Reagan to Prime Minister Begin. The bombing raid had been preceded by a call-up of the reserve paratroop brigade without Begin's knowledge.

Suspicion by some Cabinet ministers that they were being railroaded lead to an angry anti-Sharon Cabinet session in which every minister but one opposed him.

Analysts caution, however, against conclusions that Sharon's political standing has dipped. His public ratings soared in midwar polls. Moreover, Mr. Begin, who greatly admires Sharon's military skills, backed off on criticism and was said to still support him strongly. ''To Begin, Sharon is the antithesis of the weak ghetto Jew,'' said one knowledgeable analyst. ''And in policy on Lebanon, Begin and Sharon are Siamese twins.''

Moreover, Sharon remains the only Cabinet minister, save one, with extensive military experience, thus increasing government reliance on his analyses. He continues to take on by fiat more and more of the role normally played by the foreign minister. Although press and Labor Party criticism of Sharon has grown louder and more bitter, the thick-skinned defense minister can weather this easily so long as the prime minister is on his side.

His pivotal role and his determination have added importance to Sharon's views of the next stage in the Lebanon negotiations. He has said that Israel will not withdraw its troops from Lebanon until the Syrians have pulled out. And he has warned repeatedly that Israel will not tolerate ceasefire violations from behind the Syrian line.

Although analysts here do not believe that Sharon will push soon for a major confrontation with the Syrians, they caution that events could snowball as they did in the Israeli march on Beirut. Sharon has insisted that Israeli military pressure - not special US envoy Philip C. Habib, whom he has publicly insulted - achieved the PLO pullout from Beirut. He is likely to advocate similar tactics toward Syria.

As for a solution to the Palestinian problem, the defense minister insists that the only workable plan for the West Bank and Gaza is autonomy as proposed by the Camp David accord. With the PLO decimated, Sharon is focusing on leaders of Israeli-financed and armed Village Leagues on the West Bank. Sharon met on Aug. 25 with league supporters, and he is hoping they will accept the Israeli version of administrative self-rule with or without further autonomy negotiations.

Any wider solution for the Palestinians must, he insists, take place in Jordan, which he calls ''the Palestinian state.'' Although he has renewed an invitation to Jordan to participate in autonomy talks, he has in the past urged Palestinians to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy there and has even hinted that Israel could help.

Some analysts claim that Sharon is in reality a closet pragamatist who would accept a territorial compromise with Jordan over the West Bank. But this seems to misread his strategic concept of the area, which calls for massive and permanent Jewish settlement and control of the West Bank as essential to Israeli security.

''Arik Sharon's pragmatism stops at the Jordan River,'' says one Israeli newspaper editor. But Mr. Sharon, in his 1977 political campaign for parliament, did discuss a formula by which Jordan could have some political rights in a West Bank controlled militarily by Israel.

Sharon is said to believe that as prime minister he could assure peace on all of Israel's borders. But his controversial personality and his legion of enemies - increased by this war - make it unlikely that he would ever get his party's nomination.

Moreover, analysts here say Mr. Begin is unlikely to hand over his mantle to Mr. Sharon. But some of the defense minister's opponents contend that he may one day come to power via popular support.

''He will mobilize thousands of backers in the streets, like Napoleon,'' newspaper editor Uri Avneri says.

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