Israel's right-wing opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, whose visit to Islam's third holiest site in east Jerusalem triggered a deadly tide of violence, has a long political and military career of taking a tough line with the Arabs.
The 72-year-old former general, known for being a slick tactician, has lost none of his belligerence.
"I came here to show that Temple Mount is ours," he said during his visit, which seemed aimed at embarrassing Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who he accuses of capitulating to the Palestinians and of being prepared to divide up Jerusalem.
The hawkish Sharon was elected head of Likud, the main right-wing opposition group, a year ago, following the election defeat of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who then announced his withdrawal from public life.
A deft maneuver, he played a big part in breaking up Barak's parliamentary majority and raising the morale of his supporters. But outside his own camp, Sharon still stirs fear.
According to all opinion polls, he has virtually no chance of beating Barak in upcoming elections, and he is increasingly threatened by the possible return of Netanyahu.
Ironically, Netanyahu handed the ultra-nationalist Sharon the brief for negotiating peace with the Palestinians in the role of foreign minister, after trying in vain to throw him out of his cabinet in June 1996.
Sharon's nomination to that post in 1998 was a dramatic comeback for him, 16 years after being ousted from power in the wake of the invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Christian militias allied with the Jewish state.
Whether hated or admired, he is an undeniable presence. Some 20 years ago, he drew up the map of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as agriculture minister in Israel's first right-wing government.
At that time, he was already planning to carve up the West Bank into autonomous Palestinian regions closed in by a mesh of Jewish settlements with the simple goal of blocking the creation of a Palestinian state.
However, he is enough of a pragmatist to have admitted that such a state existed de facto in the wake of the Oslo accords of 1993 on Palestinian autonomy.
For him, it was better to adjust to the new reality and then restrict the new state to small parcels of land, with just the Gaza Strip and less than 50 percent of the West Bank -- and no weapons or water resources.
He also declared himself in favor of a pullout from Lebanon, which Barak ordered in May.
Sharon went into politics in 1972 and has always had a knack for putting a spoke in the wheels, while at the same time proving to be indispensable to right-wing prime ministers.
Former leader Menachem Begin joked that Sharon would have been easily capable of sending tanks to lay siege to the prime minister's office.
Born in 1928 in Palestine of parents of central European origin, Sharon joined the army at age 17 and throughout his military career showed a taste for rapid action, with a tendency to do whatever he pleased.
Although his military credentials are rarely challenged in Israel -- despite the exorbitant toll in human life caused by some of his commando operations -- his performance in government is far more in question.
As defense minister, it was he who planned and led the disastrous invasion of Lebanon, handing -- in the view of researchers and historians -- the government with a fait accompli.
An official commission of enquiry even established his indirect responsibility for the 1982 massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps -- JERUSALEM (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)