"Stop this man!" Secretary of State James A. Baker III is reported to have urged Israeli leaders when the conversation turned to Ariel Sharon.
But even fellow Israeli Cabinet members find it hard to stop the hawkish housing minister who savors sprinkling the occupied lands with new Jewish settlements.A hero of two wars and the architect of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Sharon is leading the drive against Baker's diplomatic overtures in the region, fearing them too dangerous for the Jewish state.
Choosing one of the most sensitive subjects, he has announced plans to build 13,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip over the next two years.
The United States considers new settlements in the occupied areas an obstacle to possible peace negotiations and is pushing a formula that would see Israel trade land for Middle East peace. Baker is due Thursday to continue efforts at winning support for a regional peace conference.
Sharon says his settlement plan is precisely what the Israeli government wants. Speaking Monday to members of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud bloc, he said the program means "putting into practice government decisions . . . with the knowledge and blessing of the prime minister."
But officials close to Shamir say Sharon has no blessing from the premier, not to speak of government approval, and many moderate Likud members were chagrined by the sudden, politically motivated establishment of a new Israeli settlement in the West Bank this week.
"I don't understand what he is doing," one Likud official noted Tuesday on condition of anonymity. "It seems his only goal is to harm Shamir."
Furthermore, Sharon charged that some of his opponents in the Likud bloc are soft on new settlements in the occupied lands because "they want to perform a wild debka dance with those who have danced on rooftops."
The reference was to a popular Arab dance and to the Palestinians who cheered the Scud missiles Iraq fired into Israel during the Persian Gulf war.
The comment was aimed in part at Foreign Minister David Levy, Sharon's old rival within Likud and one of the likely successors to Shamir.
The feud between the two ministers, which erupted after a temporary truce, only intensified on the eve of Baker's new round of diplomacy.