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Center Stage

In the lobby of Likud headquarters hangs a plaque with a quotation from Samson, a novel written by the party's mentor, the late Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky: "Tell them three things in my name, not two: Gather iron, anoint a king, and learn to laugh."

For many years Ariel Sharon—the iron-willed general and Likud hard-liner—seemed faithful only to Jabotinsky's first two imperatives. He appeared at once aggrieved and combative; even his massive physical presence seemed provocative. Yet, at age 72, the public Sharon has learned to relax and even to laugh. His weight no longer seems like excess but like comfortable accumulation. When he discusses painful subjects, such as his role in the Lebanon war, he smiles, as if he's learned the habit of amiability. As the front-runner against Ehud Barak in the coming elections, he invokes peace and national unity as much as security and counterterrorism. "Only Sharon can bring peace," proclaims his improbable campaign slogan.

Barak's campaign will, of course, try to demolish Sharon's new, more harmonious image by characterizing the election as a choice between a man of war and a man of peace. Sharon brought Israel into a dead-end adventure in Lebanon; Barak took Israel out. Sharon built settlements deep in Palestinian- populated territory; Barak will uproot them.

But, even as Barak tries to portray Sharon as his antithesis, the prime minister has come to resemble a younger Sharon in his willingness to polarize the nation for the sake of a personal vision. Where Sharon invaded Beirut without national consensus, Barak is trying to impose a peace plan that at least half the country opposes. Both men have a history of discarding democratic niceties. Sharon crushed Palestinian terrorism in the 1950s, helped win the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and solved the housing crisis of Russian immigrants in the early '90s—but he invariably violated accepted procedure and generated moral anguish with his excessive use of force. For his part, Barak has ignored the warnings of legal experts, including Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein, that, as leader of a minority government in the midst of an election, he lacks the moral right to offer the most far-reaching peace concessions in Israel's history. Neither ex-general has respected limits: Sharon didn't stop at Beirut to destroy the PLO, and Barak doesn't stop at Jerusalem to appease it.

Indeed, perhaps the crucial question of Israel's upcoming election is whether the elderly Sharon has learned from bitter experience what Barak has yet to understand: that war and peace alike can be made only through national consensus.

With some justification, critics deride Sharon's new, conciliatory image as political spin. The man who now calls himself a unifier, after all, was once the most divisive politician in Israel, forced to resign as defense minister in 1983 after a commission of inquiry found him derelict for failing to prevent the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies. Indeed, some of Sharon's recent attempts at moderation are ludicrous. Last week, for example, he sent greetings to Yasir Arafat for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr—despite the fact that he refuses to shake the Palestinian leader's hand.

Still, Sharon is today less reckless than Barak. While Barak offers massive, desperate concessions, Sharon says he will negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state but preserve security zones in the West Bank and Israeli rule in united Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount—echoing the centrist platform Barak adopted in the 1999 elections. The left calls that position a nonstarter, but Sharon also says he will settle for less in return: "nonbelligereney" rather than the full peace and total withdrawal Barak seeks. Sharon's desire to return to gradualist diplomacy recalls the approach of his friend and opponent Shimon Peres, who has also criticized Barak's all-or-nothing offer as futile and dangerous.

ONE INDICATION THAT Sharon's turn to the center may be more than an election gimmick is his obsession with a national unity government. Ever since Barak's election, Sharon has sought a coalition with Labor, despite opposition within Likud and snubs by Barak, who twice secretly turned to the ultra-Orthodox Shas to uphold his coalition even as he negotiated with Sharon. "A younger Sharon probably wouldn't have taken the humiliation," says a close associate. "But he took it because he believes that unify is the only way out of Israel's problems." At a recent meeting of Likud's central committee, Sharon provoked widespread booing by declaring that, if elected, he will hand Barak the defense ministry. It's as if Sharon now wants the left inside his future government to restrain him from any lingering adventurist impulses—such as his call early in the new intifada to consider reoccupying Jericho.

Sharon's commitment to national unity has its roots in the traumatic 1982 Lebanon war. Unlike Benjamin Netanyahu, whose short-lived political reemergence was accompanied by confessions of past failure, Sharon doesn't do apologies. Yet, after persistent questioning in an interview with The New Republic, he concedes that he learned the strategic importance of national unity during the Lebanon invasion— which he still insists was justified but which divided the public and even the army and transformed security from Israel's most unifying political issue into its most divisive. "A person learns from his experience," he says. "I think that you must get to unity if you decide to take the step of war."

That is precisely the kind of talk that unnerves settler leaders. Although they have endorsed Sharon, they remain wary of his commitment to a unity government, fearing that he'll uproot settlements in exchange for a partnership with Labor. "We'll have to baby-sit Sharon very closely," warns settler leader and Knesset member Rabbi Benny Elon.

Sharon insists the settlers have nothing to fear, promising that no settlements will be uprooted as a result of the prolonged interim agreement that he's advocating, even if a Palestinian state emerges. "I've made my position clear," he adds. "Jerusalem as the united capital of the state of Israel forever. And the Jordan Valley as an essential buffer between the Hashemite kingdom and a Palestinian entity." But equally significant is what Sharon omits: Though he once ardently invoked Israel's historic right to the West Bank, now he confines that passion, at least publicly, to Jerusalem and relates to the territories in purely strategic terms.

A BROAD, NO ISRAELI leader is as reviled as Sharon. But Israeli attitudes toward him are more complex. That's partly because Sharon, who grew up in the Labor movement and served in the army with men who later became Labor leaders, is on intimate terms with the Israeli elite. In 1996, Netanyahu, then prime minister, was shunned at a private family memorial for Yitzhak Rabin, while Sharon, an old friend of Rabin's, was welcomed. Barak and Sharon also enjoy a strong personal rapport. After Sharon went up to the Temple Mount in September, Barak publicly and repeadedly exonerated him of any responsibility for the subsequent intifada, noting that Sharon's visit was merely a pretext for preplanned violence. Nor has Sharon, however appalled by Barak's concessions to Arafat, personally attacked the prime minister.

Even on the Israeli left, hostility to Sharon is tempered by ambivalence. Though he built the settlements in the West Bank, he uprooted those in the Sinai desert as part of the Camp David accords with Egypt. Though he invaded Lebanon, he helped further relations with Egypt and Jordan and was among the Israeli leaders most trusted by the late King Hussein. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has denounced Sharon as the "ugly Israeli" who will again drag the country into unnecessary war, but novelist and veteran peace activist A. B. Yehoshua recently told a radio interviewer that Sharon's promises of peace cannot be dismissed.

Even in the Arab world, Sharon has his reluctant admirers. Lebanon's Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, was recently quoted in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot sounding like a Sharon campaigner: "Our experience with Sharon is long and complicated. [But] with him we know exactly where we stand, and when he wants to achieve something, he achieves it. If you ask me which of the two candidates can reach a settlement with the Palestinians, I tell you: only Sharon."

The optimistic scenario for a Prime Minister Sharon would be that he succeeds in forming a unity government and reaching another interim agreement with the Palestinians. Comprehensive peace would not be the focus of negotiations. "Arafat can't give up the Palestinian dream of return," notes former Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold, with whom Sharon consults on foreign policy. "Sharon will offer an alternative model for negotiations."

The pessimistic scenario would be that Labor refuses to join a Sharon government. This is especially likely should Barak and Arafat reach a comprehensive agreement, which Sharon, if elected, would almost certainly reject. Sharon would then be forced to form a narrow, hard-line coalition. The Arab countries, sensing Sharon's international vulnerability, would try to turn Israel into an outcast. Jordan and Egypt could revoke their peace agreements while Syria dispatched Hezbollah to attack the Galilee, leading to Israeli retaliation and regional war.

But many Israelis now believe that a Barak victory would bring war as well, perhaps on less advantageous terms. With the head of the Shin Bet warning of the emergence of a terrorist state on Israel's borders and the army chief of staff insisting that Barak's concessions would make it impossible to defend Jerusalem and the coastal plain, Sharon's old apocalyptic prophecies have become the nation's daily discourse.

"We can't return to the time of Sharon," warns the new Labor slogan, summoning the specter of 1982, when Sharon's excesses divided Israel. The irony is that, if Barak loses the election, it will be because the candidate who most resembles the Sharon of 1982 is Barak himself.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.