Sharon Aims to Unite Israel

With a lifelong reputation as a hardliner, Ariel Sharon is trying to reinvent himself at age 73 as a pragmatic leader who can unite an anxious Israel facing the worst spasm of Palestinian violence in years.

Compared to his predecessor Ehud Barak, who sought a sweeping peace deal to end the Middle East conflict, Sharon's goals as Israel's prime minister appear much more modest.

Sharon wants to end the five months of fighting, restore stability to Israel — and if the calm holds — open negotiations on a limited interim agreement with the Palestinians. As the main opposition leader, the bulky, white-haired Sharon was an outspoken, attention-grabbing critic of Barak's proposed concessions to the Palestinians.

But since his election a month ago, Sharon maintained a low-key presence. He has successfully constructed a broad coalition government by stressing issues that bind Israelis — namely, the fear of more violence — and studiously avoiding burning controversies that divide them, such as what should Israel give up for a peace deal.

However, Sharon is likely to find it much more difficult to maintain this strategy in office. The ongoing violence will force him to make tough choices on how to respond to the Palestinians.

In a half-century as a soldier and politician in the upper echelons of Israeli public life, Sharon's words and actions have always reflected a confrontational approach with the country's Arab rivals.

He has moderated his tone since he became a candidate for prime minister late last year and says he'll seek ways to ease the day-to-day problems facing Palestinians; one such move could be easing the closure Israel has imposed on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But on the larger issues, including Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, Sharon is staunchly opposed to any major concessions.

As a member of parliament, he never voted in favor of any of Israel's peace agreements with neighboring Arab states. He has refused to shake the hand of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling him a murderer and a liar in a magazine interview published earlier this year.

Sharon says he can't reverse the results of almost a decade of peace negotiations, and acknowledges that a Palestinian state is coming into being whether Israelis like it or not.

However, he has said he won't recognize such a state until the Palestinians end all hostilities, and doesn't intend to give them more land than they now control — about 42 percent of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip — or divide Jerusalem, as Barak expressed willingness to do.

The child of Russian immigrants, Sharon first fought in the Jewish militia whose founding preceded Israel's statehood in 1948. After that, Sharon rose swiftly through the ranks of the Israeli army.

From early on, he had a reputation for sometimes exceeding his orders. In 1953, he commanded Unit 101, a force carrying out reprisals for the slaying of an Israeli woman and her two children. His troops blew up more than 40 houses in Qibya, a West Bank village then ruled by Jordan, killing 69 Arabs. Sharon later said he thought the houses were empty.

The accolades mounted as well, though. In the 1973 Mideast war, he commanded 27,000 Israelis in a daring drive across the Suez Canal into Egypt. It helped turn the tide of the war, and Sharon recalled it as his finest hour in uniform.

But in September 1982, Israeli troops were stationed next to two Palestinian refugee camps when an allied Christian militia group entered and systematically slaughtered hundreds of people. An Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible, costing him his job as defense minister.

Sharon's political career seemed doomed. But he gradually rehabilitated himself, serving in parliament and holding a variety of cabinet posts.