Ariel Sharon, the former tank commander turned hawkish politician, set his sights Sunday on bringing down Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and derailing proposed peace talks with Palestinians.
In confirming his resignation from Shamir's Cabinet, Sharon predicted doom for Israel if the government goes ahead with plans to let Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip elect a peace delegation.
"I don't remember as dangerous a situation as we are facing now. The plan will not bring us to peace. It will bring us to more tension, bloodshed and maybe even to war," said Sharon, who as defense minister led Israel into the unpopular 1982 Lebanon War.
The portly Sharon said he would campaign within the rightist Likud Party to unseat Shamir in time to run for prime minister himself. "I saw that to continue in the government without being able to warn our people about the disastrous outcome would be a mistake. It would be lying to myself," he said. "I will continue my struggle from the outside."
Elections are not due for almost three years, although a collapse of the fragile coalition between Likud and the more dovish, center-left Labor Party could bring on a premature vote.
Sharon stepped down from his post as trade and industry minister amid reports that Israel may soon engage the United States and Egypt in talks to name a Palestinian panel to prepare for elections. His resignation was viewed in Israel as a challenge not only to Shamir, but also associates of Shamir who might aspire to succeed the 74-year-old prime minister.
Among the prime candidates is Moshe Arens, the foreign minister who is in charge of delicate negotiations on the peace proposals.
Sharon's dramatic withdrawal from government--he announced his exit during a raucous meeting of Likud last week--is but the latest episode in a maverick style for which he is notorious.
He became a hero of the 1973 Middle East War by leading troops across the Suez Canal, despite the misgivings of superiors, and surrounding a main force of Egyptians. During the Lebanon War, he was criticized for turning what was advertised as a sweep of terrorists up to 25 miles from the Israeli border into the siege of Beirut and a frustrated effort to set up a friendly Christian government.
Sharon resigned from his defense post in 1983 amid charges that he was indirectly responsible for a massacre of Palestinians in Beirut at the hands of Israel's Christian allies. In 1987, at the onset of the Arab uprising, Sharon moved into a private home in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, further inflaming Palestinian passions.
Sharon said that in a matter of months, he could end the intifada, as the uprising is called in Arabic. He recommended that known Palestinian leaders should be expelled from the country. He was less specific about how much force he would use, except by reference to his 1971 effort, as army general, to root out nationalist assassination squads from the Gaza Strip.
During the seven-month Gaza operation led by Sharon, Israeli troops killed more than 100 Palestinians. His troops bulldozed buildings to open the way for street patrols and tore down hedges to eliminate hiding places. To keep rebellious youths from taking part, Sharon expelled to neighboring countries a small number of parents whose children were seen throwing stones at soldiers.
"Gaza was completely quiet for 10 years after," Sharon claimed.
In settling the dispute with Palestinians, Sharon insisted, Israel must be sure to keep fundamental control of the occupied land. "It will be our right to be in charge of the security in Judea, Samaria and Gaza," he declared, using Biblical terms for the West Bank. "And that will be forever."
He also pledged to avoid compromises he views as putting Israel's control of Jerusalem in doubt. "Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people. Jerusalem is the heart of Israel," he told reporters. "Jerusalem will not be negotiated."
Sharon views a proposal by Washington and Cairo to let Arab Jerusalem residents enter the peace talks to be a risk to Israel's hold on Jerusalem. The United States and Egypt are also pressing Israel to let expelled Palestinian leaders take part in talks to prepare for elections. It was these two potential compromises that prompted Sharon's resignation.
Ironically, in a search for compromise, Shamir's strongest ally is the Labor Party's Yitzhak Rabin, defense minister in the coalition Cabinet. Rabin has reined in Labor doves who want to leave Shamir on his own; thus the Likud-Labor coalition stands, and Sharon by himself is essentially trying to bring it down.