JERUSALEM — For almost all the 14 years that Abdul Wahab Dawarshe has been a member of the Israeli parliament, he steered clear of former Gen. Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Dawarshe, who represents the Arab Democratic Party, disdained the military man his fellow Arabs dubbed the "butcher of Beirut" for his role in allowing the massacre of Palestinian refugees during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
But during the last few months, Dawarshe came to respect Mr. Sharon and arrived at a new assessment: The ever-troubled Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, looked unlikely to deliver the hard-core right wing in a peace settlement with the Palestinians, but perhaps the authoritative Sharon could.
So Dawarshe, a native of Nazareth, decided to do what would have been unheard of only a year ago. He arranged a secret meeting between Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen) - the Palestinian official closest to President Yasser Arafat - at Sharon's remote ranch in the Negev desert.
That such a once-implausible meeting took place at a time when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have not been speaking to each other for more than three months might be newsworthy enough. But the tte--tte also comes at a time when Mr. Netanyahu, in crisis since the resignation of his finance minister, is about to appoint Sharon to fill the spot and to allow him more power than he has enjoyed in years.
Once deemed a has-been, Ariel Sharon is returning to the spotlight to clinch an unexpectedly key role in Israeli policymaking and perhaps even in Middle East peace. And while optimists think that the man Israelis call "the Bulldozer" - referring both to Sharon's physique and his leadership style - could be the one to sell ultranationalists and Jewish settlers on the Oslo accords, others doubt whether the Likud's tiger could change his stripes.
But Dawarshe has newfound faith. "Weak leaders, even if they are good people like [former Prime Minister] Shimon Peres, are not able to lead their people," he says. "Only strong leaders have the credibility, and I believe that only Sharon has the ability to lead the right wing to compromises. Now that Netanyahu is not trusted and is so unpopular, he cannot do these things and Sharon can."
Peace 'for the children'
In an interview with the Monitor, Dawarshe painted a picture of an aging, wiser Sharon who wants to make peace for the generations to come. "He thinks it's terrible that things are going so wrong in the peace process and that there will be another war," Dawarshe says. "He told me he wants to contribute with Abu Mazen to make peace for the Palestinian children and the Israeli children."
There was a day when Sharon epitomized all that was wrong with the "national camp," as Israelis describe the right wing. Sharon was remembered for dragging Israel into Lebanon's civil war in 1982, and subsequently allowing Israel's Lebanese allies to enter the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps and gun down civilians.
Sharon had become more a liability than an asset to the Likud Party, which became apparent during last year's elections. The left wing tried to scare voters away from supporting Netanyahu with a television ad in which the actor fearfully declared that "Bibi" - the now-prime minister's nickname - reminded him of Sharon.
Sharon, having lost legitimacy among so many Israelis, was deemed to have been kicked upstairs in the Likud Party, where he would have to be content pulling strings from behind the scenes.
Which is why Netanyahu, when first forming his multiparty coalition more than a year ago, tried to marginalize Sharon and keep him out of any pivotal positions. Though Sharon had thrown his support behind Netanyahu when the young candidate was running for the Likud leadership, and even cajoled other contenders to drop out so Netanyahu could run as the sole right-wing challenger, Netanyahu was wary of Sharon's penchant for running his own show. But now that two Likud ministers have quit Netanyahu's cabinet and a few others are threatening to follow suit, the premier needs Sharon more than ever to help bolster a tottering coalition.
A military career
Born on a kibbutz in 1928, Sharon was propelled by Israel's War of Independence 20 years later into battle as a platoon commander, and into a military career that was marked with controversial renegade tactics and attempts to wipe out the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the 1950s, he was in charge of a special commando unit in which he carried out retaliatory attacks against Palestinian gunmen.
While waging the Sinai Campaign in 1956 as the commander of the Paratroops Corps, he was accused of insubordination to his superiors. And though he received a hero's praise for his leadership in the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the public came to abhor him for leading the Army into Lebanon. The war there would become Israel's Vietnam.
After Sharon hung up his uniform, he served as housing minister under the last Likud government. He masterminded a massive, overbudget buildup of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with an underlying strategy of annexing most of the land. With that kind of credential, Palestinians and many Israelis wonder how Sharon could be the man to make the compromises he tried to prevent.
Moreover, some analysts who are concerned about budget cuts and privatization - a key part of Netanyahu's economic agenda - worry whether Sharon's big-spender, big-government past will make him a disastrous finance minister.
"Yes, there's concern that he will allocate resources to the wrong places," says Shachar Gazit, a market analyst at the international department of Batucha Securities, a top Israeli investment firm.
"But he's known to be ready to sacrifice anything to achieve his goals," he adds. "He's a bully. We call him a bulldozer because when he decides to do something, he will get it done.... The main question now is, 'What does the man want?'"
He has not said whether he still embraces the so-called Sharon Plan, which would limit Palestinian autonomy and prevent a contiguous territory, or whether he will move to accept the Allon Plus plan of Netanyahu. Under that formula, Israel would keep about half of the West Bank. Neither plan is considered acceptable to the Palestinians.
Some Palestinians tried to look on the bright side after Netanyahu's ascent to power. They had made peace with one half of Israel, the saying went, and now it was time to make peace with the other half. If the dark pasts of Arafat and Syrian President Hafez el-Assad do not deal them out of the peacemaking game, the thinking might now go, why should it rule out Sharon? But not everyone is convinced.
"Sharon has a bad reputation with Palestinians," says Palestinian legislative council Speaker Ahmed Qurie, or Abu Ala, one of the chief architects of the Olso accords. "But he is a prominent figure in the Israeli government, and there is nothing we can do about that."