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Ariel Sharon: Peacemaker or peace breaker?
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- He is called "The Bulldozer" -- a barrel-framed veteran general who has built a reputation for flattening obstacles and reshaping Israel's landscape.
The hawkish Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon, is once again shaping the future of Israeli politics as he negotiates with Prime Minister Ehud Barak about the terms under which he would join Barak's minority government.
Sharon, who appears to have the fate of that government -- and, possibly, the course of Mideast peace -- in his hands, is a man who inspires strong reactions from all sides of the political spectrum.
To his right-wing supporters, Sharon is a war hero who will stand tough to protect Israeli interests against hostile Arab neighbors.
'An excellent tactician'
"He is a brave man ... very shrewd, an excellent tactician ... smart, knowledgeable, experienced," said Likud party member and former comrade-in-arms Uzi Landau.
To Palestinians and dovish Israelis, he is a bulldozer in a china shop, someone who will kill what's left of the peace process.
"He is a man of war. He is a man of expansion. He is a man of occupation," said Palestinian Authority minister Ziad Abu-Zayyad. "He cannot fit in the criteria of making peace between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people."
For his part, Sharon views himself as a pragmatist.
"I believe in peace, but I believe in peace that might provide Israel with real security for its existence," he once told CNN.
Sharon was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign minister at the Wye River talks in the U.S. state of Maryland in 1998, but he refused to talk to or shake hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Sharon has proposed giving the Palestinians only half as much land as Prime Minister Ehud Barak has offered. He says his plan would guarantee Israeli safety.
But Sharon -- described in a recent article in the online magazine Slate as "part Douglas MacArthur, part Richard Nixon, part hand-grenade" -- could have trouble winning the respect of his opponents.
"The problem is that he became a negative icon in the Arab world, in the eyes of the Palestinians, in the eyes of the entire international community," said Akiva Eldar of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "I think that in a way Sharon demonized himself. He has earned it by his deeds.
As minister of defense in 1982, Sharon orchestrated Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a military operation that killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians as Israeli forces sought to destroy Palestine Liberation Organization fighters in the region.
Sharon was also blamed for failing to prevent the massacre of as many as 2,000 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside of Beirut, Lebanon, at the hands of Christian militiamen allied with Israel.
An official Israeli inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible for the killings, saying he did nothing to stop the militias from entering the camps, despite fears the militiamen might seek to avenge the killing of their leader the previous day. Sharon was forced to resign.
His previous military experience was no less controversial.
Enlisted at 14
Born in British-ruled Palestine in 1928, Sharon developed a reputation for military prowess and ruthlessness for his role as a commander in Israel's 1953 attack on Jordan, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Enlisting in the resistance at age 14, Sharon gained attention early for his military leadership in Arab-Israeli conflicts.
As head of special commando Unit 101, he dealt harshly with Arab infiltration from the West Bank and Gaza in the 1950s and with Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza in the 1970s.
Sharon climbed the rank structure, serving as a commander of the Infantry College, infantry and armor brigades, and as chief of staff of the Northern Command in 1964-65.
He resigned from the military in 1972, but when war returned the next year he was recalled, promoted to major general, and put in command of an armored division. Israel celebrated when his forces captured Egypt's 3rd Army, effectively ending the war.
Sharon helped establish the Likud party in 1973 and was elected to the Knesset, but in 1974 he resigned to become Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's special security adviser.
He entered Menahem Begin's government in 1977 as minister of agriculture and chairman of the ministerial committee for settlements, where he encouraged the establishment of a network of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
He was elevated to revered status among the messianic settlers, and he argued strongly against returning territories to Arab sovereignty.
Loud critic of peace deal
Following Netanyahu's resignation as leader of the Likud in May 1999, Sharon took the reins of the party.
As Barak tried to reach an elusive peace deal with the Palestinians, Sharon was one of the prime minister's loudest critics. The Palestinians blame Sharon's visit to a disputed Jerusalem site on September 28 for sparking violent clashes and endangering the push for peace.
Sharon said he went to the site -- known as the Temple Mount by Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) by Muslims -- with a message of peace. He said the violence was a premeditated campaign orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon said he regretted the violence but denied any blame. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he wrote, "I remain fully committed to achieving peace with all our Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians."
Barak and Sharon at odds on coalition government
Israel Defense Forces
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