Ariel Sharon did not rise to the second most important job in the Israeli government because of his finesse, so it was not surprising that his fall from grace this week was accomplished with all the delicacy of a column of tanks charging across the desert.

When Sharon formally leaves the post of defense minister on Monday, condemned by a panel of his own countrymen for the "grave mistake" and "blunders" that led to the disastrous massacre of Palestinian refugees in West Beirut, he will certainly strut out the door with his head held high.

Arik, as he is popularly known, will be gone then from the Defense Ministry's complex of offices in Tel Aviv, but not from the Israeli political scene. And as long as he is around, perhaps as the minister without portfolio that he is slated to become if the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approves, he is likely to be an object of passionate devotion and hatred--a foreboding presence pointing his country in a direction that many here believe will lead to further tragedy.

Last Thursday night, all the passions that swirl around Sharon were on display near the prime minister's office. Inside, Sharon's Cabinet colleagues were in the process of isolating him and forcing his departure from the Defense Ministry. Outside, hundreds of his followers chanted their devotion: "Arik, Arik, king of Israel."

Most of the pro-Sharon group had left when the torch-bearing members of Israel's Peace Now movement arrived to stage their own demonstration. Among them was Emil Grinzweig, who would be dead in less than two hours, his body shattered by a hand grenade. To many of these people--intellectuals, academics, professional people of European or North American origin, the Israelis who are most familiar to Americans--Sharon is nothing but a "thug."

It is virtually impossible to be neutral on the subject of Sharon. In many ways the controversy about him concerns day-to-day politics less than it reflects a fundamental clash of values in Israel that is yet to be resolved.

To his defenders, only Sharon, along with Begin, stands between Israel and eventual engulfment by its surrounding Arab enemies. Drawn heavily from Israel's growing Oriental Jewish community, the sons and daughters of North African or Middle Eastern Jews, they know about the harsh realities of life in this region of the world and are determined that the Jews, having achieved dominance over their neighbors, will never surrender it.

But to Sharon's enemies, many of them reflecting the western-oriented values they inherited from their parents, the price of the course upon which they see Sharon bent would be far too high. It could be, some of them fear, Israel's very existence as a democratic society based on the fundamental moral precepts of Judaism.

Born in 1928 in Kfar Malal, a farming village near Tel Aviv, Sharon is a sabra, a native-born Israeli, although at the time of his birth the country was known as Palestine and was ruled by the British. Because Sharon was born in Palestine and not Eastern Europe, he did not experience at first hand Hitler's Holocaust, and unlike Begin, who did, he rarely refers to it in public.

What he did experience was life as the son of Jewish immigrants in an overwhelmingly Arab country that was wracked by frequent waves of violence, culminating in the 1948 war of independence and the creation of the state of Israel.

Sharon joined the Jewish underground army, Haganah, in his youth. Named at the age of 22 to head commando units that specialized in behind-the-lines raids, he quickly gained a reputation for skill and bravery.

As a major in the Israeli Army in 1953, Sharon played a role in an incident that was quickly recalled following last September's massacre of the Palestinian refugees in West Beirut. In retaliation for a Palestinian grenade that killed an Israeli woman and her two children, Sharon dispatched his commando unit, known as Unit 101, to the Jordanian village of Qibia.

The commandos planted explosives that destroyed 45 homes and killed 69 Palestinians, half of them women and children. Asked to explain, Sharon replied that he thought the homes had been evacuated. Testifying before the Beirut massacre commission 29 years later, he maintained that no one could have foreseen the possibility that Lebanese Christian militiamen would slaughter Palestinian women and children.

The commission ruled that this assertion "is impossible to justify."

Sharon's Army career was as rocky and controversial as his civilian political life has been. During the 1956 Sinai campaign, he disobeyed orders and dropped his paratroopers in the strategic Mitla Pass where they were ambushed by the Egyptians, a blunder that cost 38 Israeli dead and 120 wounded before the unit fought its way to safety.

As a result, Sharon's Army career went into eclipse. But in 1964, then Army chief of staff and future Labor Party prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had immense respect for Sharon's military and leadership skills, resurrected him.

Sharon served well in the 1967 war and afterward took on the task of pacifying the occupied Gaza Strip with a tough--some called it brutal--policy of blowing up houses, bulldozing large tracts of refugee camps and imposing severe collective punishment for terrorist acts.

Sharon's crowning military achievement came in the 1973 war when he led a charge across the Suez Canal behind Egyptian lines, an operation that was described as brilliant and a turning point.

Sharon emerged from the 1973 war a genuine hero, one of the few Israel had after the perilous course of that conflict. Like so many Israeli military men before him, he went into politics.

In uniform or out, Sharon has made legions of enemies in high places, among them Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan. The respect for his military skills--"in war I'd follow him through fire and flood," wrote former defense minister Ezer Weizman in his memoirs--has always been offset by deep distrust of his personal ambition and questions about his sense of values and proportion. When he finally became defense minister, replacing Weizman in 1981, it was said in Israel that Sharon is "a war looking for a place to happen."

Before he received the defense portfolio, however, Sharon had to content himself with being agriculture minister in the first Begin government, an assignment that Weizman gleefully described as "minister of tomatoes." Weizman miscalculated, as others before him had in measuring Sharon. Applying many of the same techniques he used to pacify the Gaza Strip, Sharon became the architect and champion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

That made him a hero all over again to those Israelis who are determined never to surrender an inch of the occupied territory. Sharon is not a religious man, and although he refers to the West Bank by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, he seldom attempts to justify an unending Israeli occupation on the basis of the Bible.

As a military man, Sharon does argue that the West Bank is vital to Israel's security, but at bottom his view of the occupied territory seems simple and straightforward: it is Israel's because we are there and can't be pushed out.

The place where Sharon's war finally happened was Lebanon last summer. Sharon was the architect and executor, and the Israeli Army's stunning success carried him to a new crest of popularity. Even his strongest critics were largely silent at the outset of the war.

There were times during the war when Sharon seemed a government unto himself. He spoke not only for the military, but also voiced his version of Israel's foreign policy, accusing the United States of bad faith or worse, to the admiration of those Israelis who delight in telling Americans, "You need us more than we need you."

"I always know what's going on with Mr. Sharon. Sometimes before the fact and sometimes after the fact," said Begin of the day-long bombing of Beirut last Aug. 11, which the prime minister claimed to be unaware of while it was going on.

There is no question that Begin and Sharon together dominate Israeli military and foreign policy. All others, including Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, are minor characters. But the reality of the relationship between the prime minister and his outgoing defense minister is difficult to discern.

Some believe that Begin has allowed Sharon such a free hand in the government because he fears him and a possible backlash from Sharon's base of popular support. Others believe Sharon has been able to do what he has because he executes ruthlessly Begin's basic policies, drawing much of the criticism for those policies unto himself.

By the end of this week, Begin's admirers were saying that the wily old politician had pulled off another masterpiece. By maneuvering Sharon into isolation in the Cabinet, he forced his departure from the Defense Ministry without taking the risky step of firing "Arik the King." Cut off from the power base he enjoyed as defense minister, Sharon's influence, some predict, will soon begin to wither.

Others are not so sure.

"It is almost incredible that Sharon has survived politically," wrote Hirsh Goodman, the military correspondent of The Jerusalem Post, shortly after the massacre. Like the other Israeli military correspondents, Goodman long ago was cut off completely by Sharon, and he personally despises the defense minister.

"He has no constituency of his own," Goodman went on, "no automatic support within Herut [Sharon and Begin's coalition], where he is still regarded as a maverick. He has powerful enemies who have both the constituency and the internal party support. Yet he survives."

Like Huey Long and other recent and distant U.S. demagogues who were alienated from all the establishments of their time, Sharon seems to have support nowhere but with ordinary people, large numbers of whom look to him as a bulwark against a hostile world. Whether there will ever be enough of them, and whether Sharon will ever be in a position to tap their passions in achieving his ultimate ambition--the prime ministership of Israel--only the future will tell.

"What is for sure," said an Israeli of long experience in public affairs, "is that Sharon did not go into retirement this week."