A popular Israeli maxim describes Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's choice for defense minister in the new government, as "a war looking for a place to happen."

Only time will tell whether the judgment is unduly harsh, but "Arik" Sharon, the barrel-chested, swash-buckling 53-year-old war hero always has evoked emotionally chargaed responses from his followers and detractors, both in military and political life.

To his admirers he is one of Israel's most brilliant, inspiring field commanders -- unconventional, perhaps, but brave beyond question and willing to risk his own career rather than pass up an opportunity to engage the enemy. To his critics, he is undisciplined, hot-tempered and insubordinate, with a deep strain of hatred for Arabs that borders on psychopathic.

Even Begin, a lifelong friend of Sharon's, whose grandmother was the midwife at Begin's birth and whose granfather was a close friend of the prime minister's father, is sensitive to Sharon's unpredictability. When asked once why he was delaying so long in moving Sharon from the Agriculture Ministry to the Defense Ministry, Begin reportedly replied that it would only be a matter of time before Sharon sent Army tanks to ring the prime minister's office.

The reported slight was officially denied, but as former defense minister Ezer Weizman wrote in his former memoirs, the denials had a hollow ring.

"Begin really believes Sharon capable of doing such a thing," Weizman said.

But Begin also could ill afford to jeopardize his razor-thin, 61-seat majority in the 120-member Israeli parliament by forcing Sharon into the opposition, and he had little choice but to give up the defense portfolio -- the second most important post in the government -- which he has held himself in addition to the prime ministership.

Sharon, who as agriculture minister in the Likud government's first four-year term single-handedly engineered Israel's aggressive settlement policy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, is no stranger to controversy.

Born in Kfar Malal, a farming village in Palestine, Sharon joined the Jewish underground army, Haganah, in his youth and was wounded in the unsuccessful attempt to capture a police fortress in Israel's war of independence.

At the age of 22, he was appointed to head commando units that developed the technique of behind-the-lines raids and other unconventional fighting techniques. When Moshe Dayan became Army chief of staff, Sharon already was a captain with a reputation for fighting skill and bravery. Dayan promoted him to major and ordered him to form a crack commando organization, called Unit 101, which conducted a series of retaliatory raids into Jordan following Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel.

On one such raid on the Jordanian village of Kibiya in 1953, the commandos killed 69 civilians, half of them women and children who were trapped in houses that were blown up with dynamite. Sharon said afterward that the unit believed the buildings were empty.

Three years later, during the Sinai campaign, Sharon disobeyed orders and dropped his paratroopers in the strategic Mitla Pass, an operation that cost 38 Israeli dead and 120 wounded. Dayan wrote in his memoirs that Sharon was saved from a court martial ony because of the Israeli Army doctrine that commanders are punished for doing too little, not for doing too much.

After the 1967 war, Sharon pacified the Gaza Strip with a tough -- some called it brutal -- policy of blowing up houses, bulldozing large tracks of refugee camps and handing out severe collective punishment for terrorist acts.

In the 1973 war, Sharon led a crossing into Egypt behind the enemy lines, an operating that although described as reckless at the time by many military strategists, was vindicated by subsequent events. His unit created havoc among the Egyptians and was credited with shortening the war.

Of Sharon, Weizman wrote, "In war, I'd follow him through fire and flood." But, Weizman added, Sharon tends to leave behind him a wide swath of bitter enemies and disappointed supporters.

"Sharon has lost sight of the distinction between his own personal good and the good of the state," Weizman said.

Former Army chief of staff Mordechai Gur, in an interview in the Hebrew-language daily Davar, said, "Sharon is a man who is motivated by power and believes in using it to solve problems. So long as he was under the control of moderate commanders and ministers of defense, it was possible to contain him. But one should not place the defense portfolio in the hands of a man like Arik."

Gur warned that Sharon could "use the defense establishment to threaten democratic values," adding, "Now that we are in the midst of the peace negotiations and the delicate situation with Syria, I dread what he is capable of doing."

Even in the Likud government's tempestuous Cabinet meetings, Sharon's temper has stood out, particularly during his unsuccessful "war of attrition" last year to gain an appointment as defense minister.

When Sharon called begin's part-time handling of the defense portfolio "irresponsible" and suggested it was endangering the lives of Israelis, an ashen-faced Begin was said to have advised Sharon that Israel was still a democracy.

"Thankfully, we are not living in George Orwell'w 1984," Begin was quoted as saying to Sharon. In one Cabinet meeting, Sharon threatened to strip one of his colleagues naked on the meeting-room table, and in another he accused a fellow minister of being a "political whore."

But his popularity among a wide segment of Israel's population had not been lost on the Likud leadership, and Sharon is likely to become a major contender to succeed Begin when the 69-year-old prime minister decides to step down.

As agriculture minister and head of the ministerial committee on settlements, Sharon was responsible for building dozens of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a program that he says is essential for Israel's strategic depth but one he also candidly admits will make a territorial compromise in the occupied area impossible.

As defense minister, he will be responsible not only for the day-to-day security of the West Bank and Gaza, but he will have an important role in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations for Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories.

His approach to those negotiations might have been forecast in an interview last year, when he suggested that Jordan's King Hussein should be displaced by a Palestinian who would represent the country's 60 percent Palestinian majority.

"Jordan is already a Palestinian state. The obstacle -- one might say a sympthetic obstacle - is King Hussein," he said.