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Profile of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Aired April 20, 2002 - 11:30   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: For nearly six decades, Ariel Sharon has been a presence and a force in Israel, first as a soldier, then as a politician, and now as prime minister. He has shaped and reshaped the Israeli landscape, both literally and figuratively, and he has done so with one thing in mind, to insure nothing less than Israel's total security.

Last week, we profiled Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Here's Sharon Collins.


ARIEL SHARON, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL (through translator): The State of Israel is in a war, a war against terrorism.

SHARON COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): He is a lifetime warrior for Israel, once again at the center of a vicious cycle of violence and retribution.

YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY CHAIRMAN: I have to ask the whole international world, is this acceptable that I can't go outside from this lot. Is this acceptable?

COLLINS: Locked in a seemingly endless struggle with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN LEGISLATOR: To the Palestinians, Sharon is a black fisted murderer, ruthless, cruel, no regard for human life.

MORTIMER ZUCKERMAN, CONFERENCE OF PRESIDENTS OF MAJOR AMERICAN JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS: I think they feel strongly about Sharon, because they know what a formidable enemy that he has been. He has fought them for 50 years, and he has fought them effectively and beaten them at that game.

COLLINS: After a series of suicide bombings that killed dozens of civilians, Israeli forces pound what they call Palestinian terrorist infrastructure.

SHARON: Peace might be discussed only when we see full cessation of terror (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and incitement.

COLLINS: The U.S. is pushing to end the violence. Sharon says he's committed to peace, but on his terms.

SHARON: I am myself committed to peace, because I saw all the horrors of wars.

COLLINS: A soldier with roots in the Holy Land, Ariel Sharon was born in 1928 on a farm outside Tel Aviv, where he grew up with his parents and an older sister. The family had come to Israel from Russia seven years earlier to farm the Promised Land. They were part of a huge wave of Zionist immigrants, who worked to turn desert and swamp into fertile ground.

DAVID SHIPLER, AUTHOR "ARAB AND JEW": Sharon loves the land as a farmer does, and has always regarded the land as ethic rule to Jewish identity in that place, that Biblical place. I think it's a very secular, but still rather mystical view of land, and its importance.

COLLINS: Despite his land for the land, Sharon admits in his autobiography that he never felt the warmth of a family until he joined the army as a teenager.

DAVID CHANOFF, CO-AUTHOR "WARRIOR, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ARIEL SHARON": The military really became his family, and I think all of that kind of warmth, all of those kinds of relationships that you have with the people who suffered through things with you, affected him profoundly.

COLLINS: In Israel's 1948 war for independence, Sharon was shot in the abdomen, but that didn't deter him from a lifetime of military service.

DORE GOLD, SHARON ADVISER: I think Ariel Sharon feels a historical responsibility to save the Jewish State. He's a man, who for his entire life, has been called to duty in critical moments.

COLLINS: After the war, he took time out from the military. In 1953, he married Margolite (ph), a young Romanian woman he had met years earlier on a neighboring farm.

CHANOFF: I think he looked back on that as being a moment that was just extraordinary for its peacefulness, for its joy. He felt as if he has spent his childhood at hard labor and then his youth at war, and that he had missed so much.

COLLINS: But his hiatus from war was cut short. In response to a wave of terror attacks, the army asked him to come back for a special mission.

SHIPLER: When Arab terrorists infiltrated into Israel from Jordan, Sharon who headed an army unit, called Unit 101, went into a Jordanian border town called Kibya (ph) and blew up 45 houses in retaliation. Sixty-nine Arab villagers died. Sharon said that he didn't know the houses were occupied.

ASHRAWI: He personally was in charge. When he heard the women and children yelling and screaming in the homes as they demolished them, blew up, and he's carried that legacy throughout. It's a pattern consistently.

COLLINS: The U.N. Security Council condemned the Israel action. Sharon called the civilian deaths a tragedy, but he says Kibya was meant to teach a lesson. For every act of Arab terrorism, there would be a heavy price to pay, a lesson he would return to again and again in the years ahead, as he moved from the battlefield into the political arena. That story, when PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues.


COLLINS: In June 1967, Ariel Sharon, now general, was back at war. This time Israel faced a massive attack from Arab neighbors, bent on destroying the Jewish State. Israeli forces launched a preemptive strike to devastating effect. In six days, Israeli- controlled territory tripled in size.

For Sharon, the victory would soon be tempered by crushing personal news. In October, during the Jewish New Year, Sharon's 11- year-old son Gur (ph) died of a gunshot wound. He had been playing with one of his father's antique guns.

CHANOFF: Sharon heard a gunshot. Gur was lying there with a terrible facial wound, and he stood there yelling for someone to bring a car. It went to the clinic. The doctor at the clinic said you must get him to the hospital immediately. They got back into the car, and the boy died in Sharon's lap.

COLLINS: It was Sharon's second personal tragedy in five years. His wife, Margolite, had died in a car accident in 1962. In 1973, Sharon decided to retire from the military and purchased a ranch that would become his sanctuary in the years ahead. By now, he was remarried to Margolite's sister, Lilly.

But later that year, he was again called to fight when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel's holiest day. Sharon led the reversal of Israeli fortunes in the Yom Kippur War with the capture of the Egyptian third army, leading 200 tanks and 5,000 men across the Suez Canal, a feat many consider his greatest military triumph.

GOLD: And it was Sharon's bold generalship that led to the crossing of the Suez Canal, the encirclement of the Egyptian Army, and basically bringing about Israel's victory in that war.

COLLINS: Hailed by many as a war hero, and by now disillusioned with the liberal Labor Party that controlled the Israeli government, Sharon decided to pursue politics. He was convinced that his experience in battle would help forge peace and security for Israel.

SHARON: And I saw all the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the war. I lost my best friend. I was very badly injured twice in battles. Therefore, I believe that (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ZUCKERMAN: One of the things about generals that you learn is that essentially they're pragmatists. I mean their military theories and strategies better work. If they don't work, they lose the battles. Well, he's won a lot of battles because, in fact, he has had brilliant strategic and tactical instincts, and I think a lot of those are now being applied from a political point of view.

COLLINS: Sharon helped form a right wing coalition of opposition parties called the Likud for unity, and he was elected to the Israeli Parliament or Knesset in 1973.

Later in the Israel Cabinet, Sharon's focus was on security. As Minister of Agriculture, he was the prime mover behind the settlement of Israelis in the occupied territories.

SHIPLER: The first time I ever met him was on a settlement in 1979 in the West Bank, where he came roaring up the hill in a Jeep, pulled out his maps, he loves maps, and started talking about security. And he said, "if you raise a child so that he knows every valley and every hill and every spring and every stone, he will consider the land his, and he'll fight to defend it." That's Sharon's view.

COLLINS: To build the Jewish settlements, Sharon deployed bulldozers, and when Israelis came under attack, bulldozers and explosives were used to flatten the homes of Palestinian terror suspects, and home built outside designated areas. Some nicknamed Sharon "the bulldozer."

ASHRAWI: "The bulldozer" is very appropriate. Sometimes we call him "the Raging Bull" but I don't want to insult native Americans. I think of him as being obsessive and driven and in many ways quite evil.

GOLD: The bulldozer term really refers to a minister who gets things done and doesn't throw up his hands and say, the bureaucracy has made it impossible. Some may try and use it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but that's what it really meant. It means someone who gets things done.

COLLINS: To Palestinians, the settlements amount to an illegal land grab and a permanent occupation of their territory. For some Israelis, they are an impediment to peace.

Even more controversial than the settlements, Sharon's military campaign in Lebanon. In 1982, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were using war-torn Lebanon as a base for deadly attacks on Israel. Sharon, now Minister of Defense, led Israeli forces through South Lebanon, all the way to Beirut.

SHARON: We came here only for one purpose, and that is to destroy, take this word, to destroy the terrorist PLO, Palestinian organizations.

COLLINS: Sharon later told CNN he ordered Arafat's assassination 13 times during the Lebanon campaign, though more recently he sidestepped the question.

QUESTION: Are you sorry you didn't kill him then?

SHARON: Look, I don't think that we have to deal with everything in the past. I think we have to look forward, how we can reach an agreement, cease-fire, peace.

COLLINS: Israeli forces were able to drive Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon, but Sharon's triumph was short lived.

SHIPLER: After Arafat and the PLO left West Beirut under a kind of safe passage guarantee from the Israelis, the Israelis permitted Lebanese Christian (UNINTELLIGIBLE) militia to go into two Palestinian refugee camps, Shabra (ph) and Shaqila (ph), where they massacred 700 to 800 people.

Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister after that. He was investigated by an Israel commission, which found that he should have known, as defense minister, that this massacre would take place, if he allowed the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to go in there. And they found indirect responsibility, as they put it, by Israel for the massacre, not direct, but indirect.

COLLINS: After the massacres, Sharon was by his own account isolated within the government, consigned to a series of lower level posts, and he was vilified by Arabs and Jews alike. Sharon retreated to his ranch to refocus on family and his roots.

ROBERT MORGENTHAU, FRIEND OF ARIEL SHARON: He really loves the land and he loves growing things, whether it's watermelons or citrus or sheep. The strain of sheep that he has go back to the Biblical days. The thing he wants most, I think, is to go back to his farm and live there in peace, beat the swords into plough shares.

COLLINS: But peace down on the farm would not last. The occupation continued. The settlements grew. Israel faced more terror, and the lifetime warrior was embroiled in another fight. That story, when PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues.


COLLINS: September 1993 brought hope of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. With President Bill Clinton looking on, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands sealing a landmark agreement.

In the Oslo Accords, as they were called, the Palestinians recognized the right of Israel to exist, and the Israelis acknowledged Palestinians could have a state of their own. They also allowed Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to move to Gaza and Jericho on the West Bank. Ariel Sharon and Israeli hard liners hated the Oslo deal.

Sharon, who was again serving in the Israeli Parliament, referred to it as a moral error of the first order.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Jewish people are against the agreement with the murderer Arafat, and we will not leave. We will stay here in all Israel.

COLLINS: Two years after Arafat and Rabin shook hands, the peace process was dealt a shocking setback. An Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. Rabin's killing brought a surge of support for the doves in Israel, who wanted to build on the Oslo Accords, but Palestinian terror attacks several months later, gave a boost to Sharon and the Likud hard-liners as national elections approached.

SHARON: We live in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). There are many, many quadrants in the Middle East that have not changed. My grandfather faces terror. My parents, myself, my children, and all families here that have been facing this Palestinian terror now for five, six generations.

COLLINS: Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister and the old warrior, Ariel Sharon, returns to the fold as a member of the cabinet. Two years later, in the fall of 1998, Sharon was at Netanyahu's side when Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks at the Wye River in Maryland. With little fanfare, a limited agreement was signed, but Sharon refused to shake Yasser Arafat's hand.

GOLD: He certainly shared responsibility for the signing of the Wye Agreement, along with the rest of the Netanyahu government at the time. But I think at the same time, he had a reading over who Yasser Arafat was. He read the intelligence reports about how Arafat had failed to fight terrorism, and perhaps was effecting the green light to terrorism, and therefore I think he felt the handshake was symbolic, that the handshake would have been inappropriate, given what we knew about Yasser Arafat already in 1998.

COLLINS: Sharon's doubts about his lifelong adversary, Arafat, only grew the next time peace talks were held. When Israel made what it considered its most generous offer to date at Camp David in 2000, Arafat didn't counter and President Clinton blamed him for the breakdown in talks.

SHIPLER: There may have been reasons that would make you understand why he did, but the fact that he did has convinced most Israelis that he doesn't want peace. So most Israelis would be willing to get out of the territories and would be willing to have the settlements dismantled, but they're afraid to because they think that without their army in there, their security would be at risk. And I think Sharon is absolutely convinced of that.

COLLINS: After Camp David, Sharon and other hard liners feared that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak might still be prepared to surrender control of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, and in September, Sharon visited one of the holiest sights there, one claimed by both sides.

SHIPLER: When Sharon went to the Temple Mount, he exercised his right as an Israeli citizen to go there. So he didn't do anything illegal, but he certainly did something nonsensical, and he by surrounding himself with lots of security people, he basically committed what many Muslims regarded as a sacrilege.

COLLINS: A sacrilege to Palestinians, compounded because Sharon was already so hated by so many. NASSER AL-KIDWA, PALESTINIAN REPRESENTATIVE TO U.N.: This was the powder keg, which then exploded and caused explosion of the whole occupied Palestinian territory.

COLLINS: Crowds of Palestinians attacked Israeli security forces. The uprising or intifada returned with a vengeance.

ASHRAWI: He knew that the situation was explosive. It was volatile, and he wanted to ignite the spark that would blow up the whole place and he did it. He wanted to create a situation of insecurity, instability, and fear in order to exploit that to get into office.

GOLD: The visit of Israeli members of Knesset on the Temple Mount is something that had been done in the past, and something that was completely normal and acceptable for an Israeli leader. The intifada had already broken out before Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount.

COLLINS: Intentional or not, Sharon's visit paid political dividends and he decided to run for Prime Minister. He campaigned on a message of peace through security. His key opponent, the prime minister, portrayed him in campaign ads as a ruthless warmonger. And yet, he was elected in February, 2001 in the largest landslide in Israeli history.

Sharon's moment of triumph was tempered by personal loss. His wife Lilly had died 11 months earlier. The day of election, Sharon visited her grave.

MORGENTHAU: I think he was lost for quite a while. I mean you could just see that a very important aspect of his life was missing. I mean he was -- they were very close.

COLLINS: In office, Sharon's son, Amry (ph), has served as a trusted adviser, acting among other things as a go-between with Arafat.

GOLD: He's been a very important conduit for sending messages directly to Yasser Arafat in a back channel where a highly trusted person could be used for passing the most sensitive messages.

COLLINS: More than a year later, Sharon is back in a familiar place, in a pitched battle with Yasser Arafat. As the stalemate continues, the general, turned prime minister, is trying to convince Israelis, Palestinians, and the world that a lifelong warrior is the right man to bring about peace.

GOLD: In the military, generals give orders and they're immediately implemented. In political life, you have to persuade people of your position. He understands you have to build consensus around ideas that you want to get implemented.

He fancies himself as a strategist, but I think he has some blind spots. One of those blind spots is his lack of understanding of Palestinian politics, of what life is like for Palestinians under Israeli occupation. I don't think he's ever grasped how difficult and how enraging daily experience can be for the Palestinians.

ASHRAWI: I think Sharon, as always, will keep going. As they say, he never stops if there's light, so he will keep going until somebody stops him.

COLLINS: Sharon's supporters hope he won't stop until Israelis feel safe on their own soil.

GOLD: Security means your children can go to school and you don't have to worry about whether there's a security guard at the nursery or the Kindergarten. It means your teenagers can go to a discotheque at night on Saturday night and you don't have to fear they may not come back. Security means what it says, the people of Israel staying alive.

COLLINS: To bring security to Israel, Ariel Sharon is now applying in the occupied territories, the lesson he first learned 50 years ago. For every act of terror, there is a price to pay.


ZAHN: That is it for this edition of PEOPLE IN THE NEWS. I'm Paula Zahn. Thanks so much for joining us. Goodbye.




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