Israel's Sharon, architect and 'casualty' of Lebanon invasion, plots his comeback

There is a brisk cold to nighttime on the edge of the Negev Desert. A fire blazes amiably in Ariel Sharon's ranch house. Saddles straddle the banister. A thousand sheep graze outside amid rows of melons, celery, and cotton , or beneath citrus groves.

''I love to farm,'' intones Mr. Sharon, the cast-off architect of Israel's war in Lebanon, as if trying to convince himself. Then, the bitterness bursts through, only slightly softened by a mirthless smile:

''I'm the only defense minister in the world who went back to work on his tractor because of what Christians did to Muslims.''

What Christians did to Muslims - in Beirut's Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila - was to slay them like sheep at slaughter time, without interference from Israeli troops just outside.

One year after an Israeli inquiry into the September 1982 massacres forced Sharon out of his job, charging him with indirect responsibility for the tragedy , he is intent on a comeback - not as defense minister, but as prime minister.

He remains a member of Israel's parliament and government. But now he is a mere ''minister without portfolio'' and, on strained terms with others in the Cabinet, increasingly a minister without say.

The burly, silver-haired Sharon publicly tossed his rancher's hat into the ring last month. In a chat in his Negev home shortly beforehand, he dispensed amply of the personal self-assurance and political feistiness that make foe and friend take his comeback bid more seriously than logic might dictate.

At the very least, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's coalition facing demands for new elections, Sharon's voice is likely to be heard prominently in Israeli political developments.

''Arik'' Sharon is probably the most loved and hated man in Israel. He has long been that way - first as a 1950s leader of an elite Israeli counterterror unit, later as a commander in the Israeli-Arab wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973, and since then as a politician.

Frequently at odds with colleagues and superiors, he has carved out a reputation for favoring the bold stroke; shrugging off what he seems to see as skittish or short-sighted concerns about dangers, diplomatic costs, even lives involved; and driving ahead at his target, be it military or political. His most valuable patron, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, once joked that if Sharon , then agriculture minister, were ever made defense chief, ''he would ring the prime minister's office with tanks.''

In fact, Sharon did get the defense minister's job. Mr. Begin gave it to him 1981 - after Sharon, in four years as agriculture minister, had spearheaded Israel's controversial settlement campaign on the occupied West Bank with martial determination and efficiency.

Sharon the defense minister would not, as it happened, ring Begin's office with tanks. He would instead ring the Lebanese capital, Beirut, with tanks - and artillery and troops - a year later, and shell civilian areas of that city, as part of Israel's most ambitious and controversial military move since the birth of the Jewish state.

Yet the Lebanon war - Sharon's war, the Israeli news media dubbed it - has also provoked violent domestic debate. Was it necessary? Was it, by any twist of logic, truly defensive? And was it successful? The bloodletting at Sabra and Shatila merely sharpened such questions and overlaid them with a pervasive sense of national guilt in a state born partly out of Nazi massacres of Jews.

At the core of the controversy is Arik Sharon. There, Sharon seems at his most comfortable, and most combative.

''If the Americans had listened to us earlier, and if the (Israeli) opposition and part of the news media had not caused us to squander the achievements of the war,'' he said recently on national television, the situation in Lebanon would be much brighter.

In front of a blazing fireplace at his home, Sharon is more specific in his gripes against the Americans: ''The time to negotiate with the Syrians was when Syria was weak, immediately after the (start of the) war.''

He wishes he had convinced American envoys to push for a quick, separate Israeli-Lebanese deal for imposition on a weakened Syria. Instead, he says, the Americans were slow on the uptake. They then left Damascus to its own devices while the deal was worked out, peddling it later to a revived Syria.

''I told them that if you negotiate first . . . and then go to Syria, the Syrians will laugh in your face.'' This, undeniably, the Syrians did.

He seems no less unhappy with the men now running the show in Israel - notably Yitzhak Shamir, who became premier with Sharon's tacit support after Begin's retirement last year. He finds them indecisive and weak.

''One of the major mistakes,'' he remarks, ''was to let Arafat alive out of Tripoli,'' where he had been under siege late last year by his Syrian-backed rivals.

On the Israeli inquiry into the Beirut massacres, Sharon is at his most bitter. ''Blood libel,'' he terms the massacres' aftermath, and says the US had used the controversy to ''weaken'' an Israel which, after all, did not actually do the killing. He once added, on Israeli TV, that he ''alone had paid the full price'' for the killings, while his colleagues ''sold him out'' and got off scot-free.

On the face of it, Arik Sharon's most likely future is atop his tractor. Neither his own Herut Party - where Shamir, new Defense Minister Moshe Arens, and deputy-premier David Levy hold increasing sway - nor the fiercely anti-Sharon parliamentary opposition seems to provide a practical avenue for his comeback. Many Israeli political analysts argue that the Lebanon invasion, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and their aftermath have permanently eclipsed Sharon's role in national politics.

Yet among supporters and detractors one often hears a cautious postscript: Don't count Arik out too soon.

For one thing, Sharon commands a genuine grass-roots appeal that both the colorless Shamir and the opposition prime ministerial hopeful, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, sorely lack.

When Sharon has wandered through Israeli marketplaces, particularly in poorer areas of the country, the effect is said to be electrifying. Hands reach out. Words of encouragement are shouted.

But Sharon's greatest political virtue - if also his liability - is his mouth. He has a genius for communicating an alluringly simple vision of what Israel's future and policy should be. Peace, he argues, is the ultimate aim. But a peace on Israel's terms. Jerusalem and the West Bank must be forever Israeli. If the Palestinians want a state, fine, but it ''already exists'' - in the form of Hussein's majority-Palestinian kingdom in Jordan. And until peace comes, Arab arms must face Israeli daring and superior arms.

Sharon's future may largely depend on more domestic issues - like a deepening economic crisis - which seems likely to prompt early national elections. A veteran Labor Party official mused in an interview recently about the economic crisis and its political implications:

''Neither the present government nor the (Labor) opposition,'' he acknowledged, ''has credibility.'' Maybe, he said, this will work for the good. Maybe it will force Israel to cut back its presence on the West Bank and withdraw from Lebanon.

But, on the other hand, the crisis ''could intensify the desire for a strong man . . . to sort things out. And there is always Sharon waiting in the wings.''

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