A War Hero Takes Command

Ariel Sharon's loyal supporters call him one of Israel's great war heroes, a natural leader in times of crisis. His critics describe him as headstrong and reckless, a man who has embroiled Israel in wars and political strife.

After a half-century career filled with both triumphs and bitter controversies, Sharon, 72, has claimed his greatest success by becoming Israel's new prime minister.

According to exit polls, Sharon cruised to an easy victory over incumbent Ehud Barak in Tuesday's election. But Sharon remains a divisive figure among Israelis and is widely despised in the Arab world.

The bulky ex-general has always taken a hard line with the Palestinians, and as a member of parliament has never voted in favor of any of Israel's peace agreements with neighboring Arab states.

But since the campaign began late last year, Sharon has sought to reinvent himself as a moderate committed to peace. His low-key campaign features TV ads showing him as a grandfather hugging children and strolling through wheat fields.

Sharon says he can't reverse the results of seven years of 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.

Such a position offers little hope of progress in any peace talks. The Palestinians rejected Barak's proposal for about 95 percent of the West Bank and virtually all of Gaza.

Sharon, a farm boy born to Russian immigrants, made his name as an army commander. He has been deeply involved in all of Israel's five wars, beginning with the 1948 war of independence.

In the 1973 Mideast war, he commanded 27,000 Israelis in a daring drive across the Suez Canal into Egypt. It helped turned the tide of the war and was Sharon's finest hour in uniform.

But in September 1982, Israeli troops in west Beirut let an allied Christian militia group into two Palestinian refugee camps, where they systematically slaughtered hundreds of people. An Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible, costing him his job as defense minister.

Sharon's career seemed doomed. But he gradually rehabilitated himself, serving in parliament and holding a variety of cabinet posts over the past 19 years. And now, as he surveys the current turmoil and plans his course, he still sounds like a general.

"It's a war going on here," Sharon said of the recent violence. "You have to take your enemy out of balance by presenting him daily with new problems. He should be defending himself rather than attacking us. I'm not speaking about the theory - I've done it."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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