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Then, in 1999, Sharon began his most spectacular comeback yet. Netanyahu, defeated at the polls by Labor’s Ehud Barak, announced his resignation from politics. Sharon was chosen as Likud leader, presumably as a caretaker. Just 15 months later, however, Barak’s government collapsed and Sharon was swept into the prime minister’s office in a special midterm election.
Sharon’s election was greeted with horror in much of the world media, but Israelis, into the fifth month of a violent Palestinian uprising, were largely relieved to have the old soldier in charge. Most important, the incoming Bush administration in Washington embraced Sharon as a friend, guaranteeing him international legitimacy.
Sharon quickly escalated Israel’s response to the Palestinian violence, dispatching the air force to bomb urban targets, ordering the assassination of suspected terrorist leaders and imprisoning Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. In May 2003, after nearly three years of urban warfare, Arafat agreed to hand over part of his powers to a relatively moderate prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. In reply, the United States, together with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, issued a so-called Road Map for Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood. Sharon accepted the plan, becoming the first Israeli leader openly to endorse Palestinian statehood.
Friends and enemies greeted Sharon’s embrace of Palestinian aspirations, after a lifetime of implacable hostility, with surprise and suspicion. In December 2003 he dropped an even bigger bombshell, announcing a plan for what he called “unilateral disengagement” from the Palestinians. If terrorism wasn’t halted, he said, Israel would move away from the Palestinians by withdrawing its troops from heavily populated areas and walling them off behind a security barrier. Most shockingly, the plan called for dismantling Jewish settlements, the project he had nurtured and championed for three decades.
The plan turned Sharon’s image on its head. His detractors on the left, accustomed to calling him a butcher, now embraced him as a peacemaker. Settlers and their backers on the right, his closest allies, attacked him as a deadly enemy and mounted furious protests. One group of rabbis staged an arcane ritual calling on heaven to strike him dead. Journalists predicted civil war. His Likud party was thrown into an uproar, and smaller parties began abandoning his coalition.