Ariel Sharon is everywhere these days. He's now in the race of his life. He wants the Americans to help keep him in power. Many others, especially on the far left and the far right but of course for different reasons, will be happy to see him go.
ARIEL SHARON, ISRAEL'S GREAT SURVIVOR OF SCANDALS, FACES ALLEGATIONS
WHICH COULD FINALLY DESTROY HIM
by Gordon Thomas
A female whistleblower and fifty hours of secret tapes recorded by a former close aide are combining to try and finally end the authoritarian rule of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
Though he has boasted he will remain in office until 2007, seasoned political analysts in Israel are predicting Sharon will be ousted in weeks.
Before then, he could even become the first incumbent Israeli prime minister to face trial for his alleged involvement in a bribery case.
On Thursday (February 5), he was interrogated for two and a half hours by senior detectives at his own official residence in Jerusalem about his involvement with a power broker in Israel's Likud Party.
Real-estate developer, David Appel, a long-time friend of Sharon, has already been indicted for trying to bribe Sharon to win his support for the development of a tourism project on a Greek island in the 1990s.
According to the charges, Appel paid hundreds of thousands of US dollars to Mr Sharon's son, Gilad, to act as a consultant on the project - even though he had no proper professional skills to do the work.
Sharon claims he knew nothing about the deal. But already the mounting scandal has deeply eroded the prime minister's credibility. Political foes are saying Sharon's decision, the day before his police grilling, to reveal a plan for the evacuation of 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza was a ploy to divert public attention from his own increasingly serious legal problems.
Israel's Tourism Minister, Beni Elton, whose ultra-nationalist party is part of Sharon's coalition, said the prime minister is "inherently weak and cannot take decisions of major importance".
Waiting in the wings is Benyamin Netanyahu. The former prime minister and a noted hardliner on Palestinian issues is tipped to replace him. Ironically, Sharon was a one-time mentor of the silver-tongued man whose nickname is once more being chanted by the crowd: "Bibi".
Every morning, in the creeping grey of dawn, Sharon 75, awakens to receive the latest news of those preparing to finally destroy him.
They are led by the formidable lawyer, Liora Glatt-Berkovic. She was a senior state prosecutor conducting a secret investigation into Sharon's financial links with Cyril Kern, a British millionaire businessman based in South Africa.
But then, after its own secret investigation by Israel's internal secret service, Shin Bet, Glatt-Berkovic was suspended for revealing details of her investigation into Sharon. He is believed to have authorised the inquiry into the prosecutor.
Glatt-Berkovic is now facing trial, accused of being a whistleblower - a serious offence in Israel. The case is due to start next month (March).
In her defence, she plans to reveal further highly embarrassing details about Sharon's financial activities in a burgeoning scandal.
She will be supported by the testimony of a former close aide to the embattled prime minister. He is David Spector, 50, who runs a private security company in Or Yehuda, a Tel Aviv satellite town.
Using some of his state-of-the-art surveillance equipment - as sophisticated as Mossad uses - Spector recorded 50 hours of what he admits are "explosive conversations" between Sharon and his sons, Gilad and Omri Sharon.
The tapes go to the heart of what Glatt-Berkovic was working on - the existence of "front" companies that Sharon used to launder illegal overseas funds for his election campaign.
By Israeli standards, the sums involved are large. In one transaction, Sharon is said to have transferred US $1.5 million to the account of his younger son, Gilad.
Spector's tapes contain revelations that Kern - a long standing military comrade of the prime minister - "loaned" him US $1 to bolster his last election campaign.
Spector was the man who shrewdly helped Sharon to become leader of the Likud Party in 1999.
The fallout between the two men is still shrouded in mystery.
But this week, Spector promised: "Soon the full picture will become clear. My taped conversations show Sharon knew about everything when it came to finances. Not even the smallest details escaped him. He is in trouble, big trouble".
Sharon has already been named in the indictment last week of another close business associate, David Appel, a power-broker in the Likud Party. He is accused of using US $700,000 of Party funds, alleges the indictment, to refurbish a ranch.
The indictment also claims that Gilad Sharon was the middle man in other deals, including receiving payments for his role in a property deal on an Aegean island.
The indictments emerging now are the result of two years of scandals which have ensnared Sharon and could see not only the prime minister, but his deputy, Ehud Olmert, facing possible imprisonment.
Sharon's spin doctors in the meantime are promoting the idea that any indictment against Sharon could have a destabilising effect on the already rocky peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
But Sharon has already indicated his lukewarm response to the "road map" that President Bush created. He has told one of his close associates that "the map is not so much a recipe for reconciliation as a lawyer's first draft of a divorce settlement".
Sharon has told his Cabinet that if he can keep playing for time, he may yet manage to achieve his vision of what a Palestinian state should be - truncated, dislocated patches of territory in the West Bank.
Sharon's leitmotif, the very reason he says he exists, is to ensure that what he once called "this little patch of soil, barren and inhospitable until we turned it into the powerhouse of the region," does not fall into the hands of the Palestinians.
Everything about them is anathema to Sharon: their customs, social structure and ideas.
But Israel's economy is crumbling. The high-tech sector, once its pride, is in stagnation due to foreign investment drying up. The gross domestic product is down by 4.7%. Unemployment has risen to 10.2%. The Iraqi war seriously hit tourism.
To all this Sharon outwardly shrugs. He finds nothing unusual in his attitude. It is there in his brooding manner, in the way he turns his bull-neck from side to side as he strides small and menacing steps. In everything he says and does, there is one unspoken question. Are you part of my problem?
It has been the question he has asked since those long-gone days when he first became an Israeli hero.
The date is engraved on a small memento in his home, a black arrow which represents a code-name - Hetz Shabor - he used to carry out a massive blow against the Egyptian army in Gaza. The date was February 28, 1955.
Sharon was then barely out of his teens but already a lieutenant-colonel in the IDF. He led two companies in Operation Black Arrow against the Egyptians. Thirty-six of them were killed. Sharon lost eight soldiers.
"The attack was an announcement we had taken off the gloves when it came to dealing with the enemy", he said later.
Gaza became his killing field. Time and again Sharon led from the front.
"Anyone who looked like a terrorist, who showed the first hint of retaliation, we killed", Sharon once told me.
He ordered the lower branches of trees in all Arab orchards to be cut down to improve the field of fire. Caves and bunkers where Arab families cowered in terror were sealed off.
"Sure it was ruthless. But war is ruthless", Sharon said. "My job on the ground was always to be there for my men. To anticipate problems. Come up with solutions. And always encourage my soldiers to do what they were there to do", he added.
It is that attitude which Sharon has exploited to keep him in power. Today, at an age when most other men would have retired, Ariel Sharon has positioned himself to be the overlord of Israel - and to lord over all those who dare to defy him.
That he still believes he will achieve this says much about the man. Flamboyant, complex and ruthless, his natural qualities are an ability to intrigue and out-manoeuvre.
He relishes in the image of his enemies that he is "a monster, a cold and calculating killer". So say the Arab press.
Creating fear, Sharon admits, is part of his strategy. He is compulsive in his determination to outflank anyone who dares challenge him.
He works a fourteen-hour day, six days a week - and sometimes even longer. He is fastidious in his personal habits. He is obstinate, quick to anger, morose.
Behind his bluff exterior is a correct and prudish manner. He abhors driving along Tel Aviv's sea front at night because of its parading prostitutes.
A CIA psycho-profile of him suggests Sharon has "a pre-morbid personality, evidenced by his obsessive ideas being expiatory, an attempt to overcome by a kind of mental magic, any inner doubts that he has".
Certainly indecision is no part of his outward personality; not for a moment does he display any folie de doubte. Once committed he charges.
"What appears irrational to others is perfectly normal for him," says Washington analyst Stephen Brooking. "For Sharon some of the past is not past".
Certainly Sharon reacts to certain situations as though they are a continuation of previous situations. Nowhere is this clearer than in the cold contempt in which he holds Yasser Arafat. He sees him as the epitome of all the terrorists who have gotten away from Sharon: Abu Nidal (killed in Baghdad); Carlos the Jackal (now languishing in a French jail); Nezar Hindawi (now in a British prison).
"These are terrorists he was committed to killing. That others captured them is a personal blow to Ariel Sharon," said one of the CIA psychologists who prepared his psycho-profile.
Sharon has come a long way since he hurtled through the Lebanese countryside in his armoured car. His strategy then, and now, is: kill or be killed.
For Sharon, President Bush's war on terrorism is a sideshow to the one Israel's Prime Minister is running.
"Our terrorists are our terrorists and we will deal with them our way," he says.
The words hold a chilling echo of the aftermath of the massacre that took place in Lebanon in 1982. Then some 2,000 Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims - mostly women and children - were massacred in two refugee camps near Beirut.
Sharon was deeply implicated. His career seemed to have ground to a halt. But he fought back. He outsmarted Benjamin Netanyahu - no mean feat - to take charge of Likud. Then he fought a bruising election to become Israel's Prime Minister.
"When President Bush came to office, he thought he knew how to tame Sharon. Clinton had allowed Sharon to operate on a long lead. Bush began to pull in the rope. It didn't work. Sharon just bit through the rope and broke free to go his own way," said Robert O'Connor, a US Middle East analyst.
There, of course, is the danger of Ariel Sharon. He is brilliant in what he does - act with total ruthlessness.
"The bottom line is that so far he does not care about outside opinion. All that interests him is keeping Israel behind him. He may just be on the edge of taking a step too far, bringing Israel to the verge of its own Armageddon," said Al Martin, another Washington analyst.
Sharon is battle hardened. He is, in many ways, a gambler. It is clear he has learned from every skirmish he has been involved in. Some he has even orchestrated - like his infamous visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the root of the second Intifad'a.
For him death is a way of life. Fearless himself, he expects all those behind him to be the same. And that is the final danger in this tempestuous, hard-driving man.
Sharon knows he can press the button on his nuclear trigger - some 200 missiles of various capacities are stored in their bunkers in the Negev Desert. Each are only minutes flying time away from Syria and Iran.
But those countries have their biological and chemical warheads, each of which are also the same few minutes away from Israel's cities.
Meanwhile the pressure on Sharon will continue to grow. But he will never willingly retire while he believes he can still hold on to the pendulum that is always swinging in Israeli political life.
The signs are that, as President Bush prepares for the US election in the coming months, it will be a hot summer of discontent in Israel - and the "road map" will derail as Washington looks to its own interests.
And so will Ariel Sharon - even if his business cleverness continues to cover him in what David Spector's tapes call "the stink of corruption".
globe-intel.net - Gordon Thomas