ARIEL SHARON BECAME PRIME MINISTER of Israel on 6 February 2001 in a landslide popular vote. That victory was consolidated in the parliamentary elections of 28 January 2003 when the right-wing block he headed won 69 of 120 seats in the Israeli knesset. Sharon, a burly, charismatic, and controversial former parachute commander, had good reason to be satisfied as he took the oath of office. The moment he had spent his life preparing for had come and he was aware of, and willing to face, the inevitable crises. Like all larger-than-life figures, Sharon is complex: part hero, part hellion. Always in the forefront of his mind, however, was the need of his people, the Jewish people, for security. That is his leitmotif. It is the cause to which he has devoted his life.
Any Israeli leader is beset with challenges rare for politicians elsewhere. Israel has a vibrant and often unrestrained polity. It is a troubled society attempting to integrate culturally diverse Jewish communities ingathered from the world's four corners. Israelis are saddled with a proportional voting system which yields a multiplicity of single interest parties, their metaphorical knives constantly at the prime minister's throat. The Jewish state has neighbours who, if they accept its existence, do so reluctantly. Israelis face the daily threat of murderous terrorism to which governments must respond. Coupled with this is the responsibility, as occupier, of governing four million hostile Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Those Palestinians are committed to a viable state of their own and are deeply resentful of Israel's de facto annexation of what they fervently believe to be their remaining land.
Always a controversial but supremely confident figure, committed to building a "greater Israel" from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, the new prime minister felt more than ready for one of the most difficult public positions imaginable anywhere. Sharon took office in the midst of the al Aqsa Intifada-the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule-and the terror bombing against Israeli citizens that were part of it. He came to power in the shadow of the broken Oslo process, where his Labour party predecessor Ehud Barak had sought to negotiate a comprehensive peace with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Authority. The responsibility for Oslo's failure is still the stuff of acrimonious debate and discussion. At the time, Israelis of all stripes were dumbfounded by what they saw as Arafat's rejection of Barak's offers.
Ehud Barak had been prepared to accept a Palestinian state consisting of the virtual entirety of the West Bank and Gaza, the division of Israel's sacred city, Jerusalem, and the return to the Jewish state of a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees. Israelis blamed not only Arafat for the collapse of Oslo but also Barak for what they said were his tactical blunders and strategic blindness. Who better to replace him, a bruised and disappointed Israeli public concluded, than an individual with a proven reputation for tough and aggressive, even ruthless, leadership, someone who would never jeopardize Israel's security. Thus Sharon became Israel's prime minister.
Ariel Sharon was born on 27 February 1928 into a family of stubbornly independent pioneer farmers who were, paradoxically, members of a cooperative village, Kfar Malal, some 15 miles north of Tel Aviv in British-controlled Palestine. His Russian-born parents lived lives apart from the community as a whole. They were staunch individualists, regarded as difficult and arrogant by their neighbours, capitalists in a community of socialists, individualists who rejected the communal spirit of their village. As a youth, Sharon learned to farm, paint, and play the violin, but he did poorly at school. His early years were very unhappy. In his surprisingly candid 1989 autobiography he said, speaking of his friends, "The games we played in the fields and orchards stopped at the doors of their houses. …