Background / Sharon: Starting Over at 75

After two years as a wartime prime minister, he now finds himself forging a new coalition, battling an "intifada" among activists of the party he helped found, scrabbling to allocate the spoils of a landslide vistory, and all the while springing political surprises.

Ariel Sharon turned 75 Wednesday, but after more than half a century in the public eye, the real work toward etching his legacy may still be ahead of him.

In fact, after two years as a wartime prime minister, he now finds himself starting over, forging an entirely new ruling coalition, battling an "intifada" among activists of the party he helped found, scrabbling to allocate the spoils of a landslide victory to a long line of supplicants, all the while pulling political surprises from an apparently bottomless hat.

Certainly no living Israeli politician can claim the length and breadth of Sharon's military-political background, nor the depth of the controversy which that career has engendered.

"When I look back, I'm not sure that there is anyone else today who can chalk up, to his credit and his discredit, so many acts" in public life, Sharon biographer and Ha'aretz commentator Uzi Benziman said Wednesday. "The roles he played in the 1950s, which changed the IDF's entire conception regarding Fedayeen [Arabs who crossed the border to attack Israelis], the roles he played in the wars, his roles in politics, as the founder of the Likud, in establishing settlements, as prime minister."

Though vilified by international critics as a war criminal, Sharon's aura among admirers is such that one associate, former Herzliya mayor Eli Landau, said Wednesday that Sharon is in the eyes of many, a figure of the stature of an "Old Testament hero."

Moreover, Landau said, "He will not want to end his career without making peace with the Palestinians. He's said more than once, that people who have made war, want peace more than anyone."

However, asked if he believed that Sharon would close the circle of his political life with the creation of a Palestinian state in the context of a peace agreement, Landau quoted Sharon, with "a cynical smile on his face," as recently advising the impatient to wait "another term or two."

Therefore, Landau said, "Don't hurry with Arik. Nothing will disturb him from continuing on the path he's taking if terror continues."

If playing for time is Sharon's overall strategy, his tactical reflexes remain as lightning-fast and unpredictable as ever. In a complex maneuver that took savvy politicians and analysts by total surprise Wednesday, Sharon simultaneously defused a threatened "Sephardi uprising" within the Likud, and forced party arch-rival Benjamin Netanyahu to back-bencher status.

Catching the canny Netanyahu unawares, he pulled a switch on the former prime minister, who had fully expected to continue in his high-profile post as foreign minister. Instead, Sharon offered him the treasury post, also a coveted position but one which Sharon knew that Netanyahu would refuse, having vowed to accept no post other than the foreign ministry.

Within minutes, Sharon struck again, stunning his embittered loyalist Silvan Shalom with an offer to replace Netanyahu at the foreign ministry. Having fully expected to be callously cast aside at the treasury in favor of fellow Sharon sideman Ehud Olmert, Shalom found himself elevated to world statesman status - no small feat for a Sephardi politician from backwater Be'er Sheva.

Olmert, until recently mayor of Jerusalem, now looks set to serve as Sharon's right hand at the finance ministry, giving the prime minister, in the view of some analysts, a ruling triumvirate that may also form the corps of party leadership in the future, with the possible addition of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, also a Sephardi.

In the space of barely two hours, Sharon may have headed off an explosion of ethnic tensions within the Likud, pressures brought to a head by the failing economy that will be one of the severest tests of his second term.

Latent ethnic tensions in the Likud, brewing for decades but heretofore siphoned off in undying hatred of the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor Party, burst forth this week, with activists representing the party's Sephardi voter majority taking rare verbal shots at the "Ashkenazi clique" that has headed the party since its founding.

Though Sharon was instrumental in founding the right-wing bloc that took the name Likud (unification) in the 1970s, its core leadership remained the family tree of Menachem Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) pre-state underground, led in the main by immigrants from Eastern Europe. A brace of cabinet ministers, the "princes and princesses" of the Likud, are the sons and daughters of prominent IZL and Lehi fighters, Olmert among them.

According to former senior Laborite Uzi Bar-Am, whatever path Sharon decides to pursue - whether to pursue peace talks or to enshrine the present situation - he has built a government that can go any way he chooses.

"It's a 'modular' system," Bar-Am said of new coalition, which includes the centrist Shinui along with the hawkish National Religious Party and far-right National Union. "If he chooses to go for right-wing policies, he has the structure he needs. But if, in the future, he wants to go for peace talks, he knows he has Labor waiting in the wings, all set to support him."