Reporter's Notebook: Lion in the Desert

Editor's note: Tune in Sunday, April 23 at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. ET for the FOX News Channel special "Lion in the Desert."

Jennifer Griffin

The first time I ever met Ariel Sharon he wasn't prime minister and nobody ever thought he would be. His reputation for excesses — and his vilification for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre at two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon — seemed to have sealed his political fate.

He walked into our Jerusalem office in January 2001, a year and a half after I had arrived to begin this Middle East beat. He was accompanied by his oldest friend Uri Dan — a longtime journalist and author who had arranged the meeting and was Sharon's biggest backer for five decades. Uri shared with me, from his private collection, snapshots of Sharon that he had taken throughout their historic friendship. They will be seen in the FOX special — some of them for the first time. Dan had famously declared, in 1973 when Prime Minister Golda Meir had passed over the notorious general known for arrogance and always exceeding orders, but also a war hero, to be the army's chief of staff: "Those who reject him as Chief of Staff will get him as Defense Minister. And those who reject him as Defense Minister will get him as Prime Minister." They were words that Dan repeated after Sharon was forced to resign as Defense Minister a decade later in Lebanon, after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre that left 800 Palestinian civilians dead — a crime that Sharon, as defense minister, was held "indirectly personally responsible" by an Israeli government commission of inquiry though Lebanese proxies had done the killing on their own volition. It was the lowest point of Sharon's career. Dan's words proved to be prophetic.

On that day in January 2001, when Sharon walked into our office he was almost as wide as he was tall — not a picture of fitness — and not how I'd imagined the legendary Israeli general who had famously been the first to cross the Suez Canal, defeating the Egyptian army in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, effectively saving the Jewish State.

Sharon patiently sat in a wobbly very uncomfortable wire chair for more than an hour and a half as I asked him every possible question I could muster, not knowing exactly why I was doing the interview. He seemed an anachronistic Israeli public figure whose time had passed. I did not know at the time that this interview contained hints of the blueprint of Sharon's future plans. He unexpectedly rose to be elected prime minister a month later, after the Palestinians launched a vicious uprising accompanied by a wave of suicide bombings. He told me during that interview that he was willing to make painful concessions for peace with the Palestinians — no one at that time believed him. No one anticipated that he would be the first Israeli prime minister to eventually say the occupation should end. No Israeli prime minister had ever used the word "occupation" — it wasn't one, they said, just Jews resettling their Biblical birthright. No one anticipated he would be the first Israeli prime minister to give up land and destroy Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state. He had never given an inch to the Palestinians, who refer to him as the Butcher of Beirut. Sharon's other nickname is the Bulldozer, for having built more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza than any other Israeli leader — 64 in one decade. He was the settlers' patriarch then he began to tear them down, shocking Israel and the world, especially the Palestinians.

This was the first of five sit-down interviews I had with Sharon, four after he became prime minister. I was a guest on his farm for one interview, which was particularly memorable because he insisted on being interviewed in front of hundreds of baaing sheep. The sound wasn't great for Marty Ryan, senior producer of "FOX News Sunday," but it made TV history. Some said it was one of the few times they had seen Sharon smile during an interview (he was most happy on his farm). More importantly every time Sharon said "Yasser Arafat is a terrorist" his sheep baaed in unison, as if in agreement. It was a scene that Al Jazeera and others played over and over, as if it were a skit on "Saturday Night Live."

The last time I saw Sharon was in November 2005 at a lunch in Caesarea after the Gaza pullout. He looked worn out. Our last interview was exactly a year ago at the Blair House in Washington. His handlers were trying to rush the interview along. They kept saying, "Last question." So I interrupted Sharon and said, "One last question, I know you are in a hurry." He laughed and said, "I am not in a hurry. Are you in a hurry?"

What neither of us knew was that he was in a hurry. The Gaza pullout was just one step in his final goal of setting Israel's final borders. He had a stroke and became incapacitated before finishing the historic task that he had set himself. I had the privilege to witness his transformation from Israel's greatest hawk to its most unlikely dove.

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel . She joined FNC in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.