- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Having campaigned on a platform stressing security, Ariel Sharon was elected
prime minister in February 2001. A member of the Likud Party, he
created a broad unity government that includes members of the Labor Party and
other smaller secular and religious parties.
The 72-year-old leader has had a long political career and is a controversial
figure -- nicknamed "the Bulldozer" by Israelis and "the Butcher" by
Palestinians. During his tenure as minister of agriculture from 1977 to 1981,
he initiated an extensive expansion of Jewish settlements into the
West Bank and Gaza. In 1982, while serving as defense minister, he directed the
Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Sharon was forced to resign in 1983, after an Israeli
tribunal found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of
Palestinians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Lebanese Christian
militiamen allied with Israel. In 1998, he was appointed foreign minister
by Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, and he became the leader of the Likud
Party after Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak in the 1999 general election.
On Sept. 28, 2000, Sharon made a controversial visit to the East Jerusalem complex that contains both the Temple Mount, a site holy to Jews, and the Al Aqsa Mosque, considered the third holiest site in Islam. His visit sparked widespread
protests among Palestinians, and many analysts point to the incident as the spark
for the Palestinian uprising that has become known as the "Al Aqsa Intifada," or
the "second intifada."
As the intifada has raged on and attacks against Israelis have increased,
Sharon's approval ratings have plummeted. He is facing a serious political
challenge by former Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has advocated deporting
Yasser Arafat. Sharon's dislike of Yasser Arafat is widely known. While serving
as foreign minister, he refused to shake Arafat's hand at the 1998 Wye River
negotiations. In January 2002, Sharon told an Israeli newspaper that he
regretted not killing Arafat during the war in Lebanon. "There was an agreement
in Lebanon not to liquidate Yasser Arafat," he said. "In principle, I am
sorry that we did not liquidate him."
After ordering the March 29, 2002, assault on Arafat's Ramallah compound, Sharon declared two days later, "Citizens of Israel, the state of Israel is in a war, a war against terrorism." He told Israelis, "Everyone who is peace-loving,
everyone who has been educated in the values of liberty and democracy must be
aware of the fact that Yasser Arafat is a stumbling block to peace in the
Middle East. Yasser Arafat is a danger to the entire region."
- Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
In his long political career, Peres has held numerous top positions in Israel's
government. He is best known for his many attempts to forge peace with the
Palestinians and for these efforts, he shared the 1994 Nobel Prize with Yasser
Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Although he is widely known for his "dovish" views on the peace process, Peres served much
of his early career in the Defense Ministry. In 1953, at age 29, he became defense
minister, and during his tenure there he initiated Israel's nuclear program, and helped establish the country's military and aviation
One of the founders of the Labor Party, Peres has twice served as prime
minister, although he has never been elected to the position. Peres was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, and deputy prime minister
and minister of foreign affairs from 1986 to 1990. He again served as prime
minister upon the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He was considered the
front-runner in the 1996 election for prime minister, but after a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli targets he was defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu.
After his defeat in the 1996 election, and his defeat in the 2000 election for
the Israeli presidency, Peres's appointment as foreign minister by the hawkish Ariel Sharon in March 2001 was seen by some as a surprising
political comeback. Critics saw the move as a savvy attempt by Sharon to
provide political cover for his hard-line actions against the Palestinians.
When asked how he expected to fit into Sharon's government, Peres stated his
intentions were to move it modestly towards a peaceful resolution. "I was
invited to be a partner, even if it is as a junior partner," he said in a
Peres told journalists at a press conference on March 31, 2002, that Israel's
current campaign is a "war for our existence." However, he has criticized the
strategy of occupying Arafat's Ramallah compound, saying on Israeli
television, "We must not deceive ourselves. We cannot resolve the problem in
one fell swoop, this is very complicated." He added, "We must ease the siege on
Arafat because we have polarized media attention." Peres has also announced his
opposition to exiling Yasser Arafat from the occupied territories.
Related link: "The Dreamer," a profile of Shimon
Peres by David Remnick (The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 2002).
- Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
A career army officer, Iraqi-born Binyamin Ben-Eliezer became defense minister
in Sharon's unity government in March 2001. The following December, he won the
leadership of the Labor Party in a hotly-contested race against Parliament
Speaker Avraham Burg, who had wanted the party to withdraw from Sharon's
government in protest of his policies against the Palestinians. The first Sephardic Jew to lead the Labor Party, Ben-Eliezer is considered a front-runner in the next election for prime minister, scheduled for 2003.
Prior to his role in Sharon's government, Ben-Eliezer served as commanding
officer in Southern Lebanon, military governor of Judea and Samaria, and
government coordinator of activities in the administered areas. From 1992 to
1996, he was minister of construction and housing, and he was appointed
minister of communications and deputy prime minister in July 1999. In August
2000, he was again appointed minister of construction and housing in addition
to his other positions.
Although he is a supporter and advocate of the peace process, Ben-Eliezer is
known for his hawkish views and support for tough actions against the
Palestinians. He is believed to have a very good relationship with Prime
Minister Sharon. However, in early March press accounts indicated a heated
argument between the two men in which Ben-Eliezer reportedly threatened to
resign over the expansion of Israeli military operations in Ramallah prior to
the arrival of U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni. According to media reports, the
dispute was settled privately.
Since the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the March 29, 2002, assault on
Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound, Ben-Eliezer has declared that the IDF would
pursue Palestinian militants throughout the occupied territories. However, he
also said, "We have no intention to reconquer the Palestinian territories," and
declared he was against exiling Arafat.
- Benjamin Netanyahu
Although he does not hold a government position at this time, former Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is very much a presence in the current Israeli
political climate. He enjoys growing popular support from Israelis who are
unhappy with Sharon's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is
translating into a serious challenge to Sharon's leadership of the Likud
Prior to his entry into political life, Netanyahu served as a soldier and
officer in an elite anti-terror unit of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). He
studied in the United States, at both MIT and Harvard University. In 1982, he was appointed deputy chief
of mission at the Israeli Embassy in the U.S., and in 1984 he became the
Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, where he served for four years.
Upon returning to Israel in 1988, Netanyahu was elected to the Knesset. He became Likud
Party chairman in 1993.
After promising a crackdown on terrorism following an outbreak of Palestinian
suicide attacks, Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres to become prime minister in
1996. His margin of victory was less than 1 percent. In his re-election attempt three years later,
Netanyahu was defeated in a landslide by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who
favored restarting the peace process.
Since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, Netanyahu
has continually called for Yasser Arafat's removal from power. In an interview
published in the March 25, 2002, issue of Time magazine, Netanyahu said
that if Arafat continued to sponsor terrorism against Israelis, he would
advocate an Israeli invasion of the West Bank and Gaza and Arafat's
deportation. He then said he would create a "physical separation" between
Israeli and Palestinian territory that would prevent Palestinians from entering
- IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz
Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz rose up through the Paratroop Brigade to become chief of
staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in 1998. His hard-line stance against
Palestinian attacks has endeared him to the Likud Party and he is expected to
enter politics, perhaps as a candidate for defense minister, when he steps down from his current post in July 2002. Mofaz is expected to be replaced by
current deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, who is seen as slightly
In an interview, Mofaz told FRONTLINE that he believes the Palestinian
Authority is a terrorist organization "from tie to toe." He maintained, however, that the current operation is a war against terrorists, not the Palestinian population. "It is very important for us because we know that the Palestinians
are going to live side-by-side with us for a long time," he said. "And one of
our goals is to [make] easier the life of the Palestinians. But, in the same
time, we cannot live in the situation that we are a bleeding nation."
- Major-General Giora Eiland
Major-General Giora Eiland is head of military planning for the Israeli Defense
Forces (IDF). He also served as an Israeli negotiator in the security talks led
by CIA Chief George Tenet that brought about a brief June 2001 truce.
On March 31, 2002, Eiland briefed reporters on the IDF's March 29 assault on Yasser Arafat's compound. "The objective of Operation Defensive Shield is not to conquer or
reoccupy Palestinian areas," he said. "The first aim is to control areas
currently under Palestinian jurisdiction and remain there for only as long as
needed. The IDF seeks to limit the possibility of terrorists' access into
Israel." He continued, "The other aim of Operation Defensive Shield is to stop
the terrorists by any and all means at our disposal."
Eiland explained Israel's policy of targeted assassinations
to FRONTLINE. "We prefer, or we are forced, to kill someone only when four
conditions are met," he said. "Number one, there is no way to arrest someone.
Number two, the target is important enough. Number three, we do it when we
believe that we can guarantee very few civilian casualties, and number four we
do it when we believe that there is no way that we can delay or postpone this
operation, something that we consider as a ticking bomb."
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