Ariel Sharon: The man and the myth

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 07-Jan-06 | Author: Nahum Barnea| Source: International Herald Tribune

JERUSALEM Lily Sharon died at the end of March 2000. A large tent was set up at Ariel Sharon's farm in the northern Negev, Shikmim, for the seven-day mourning period. The family house, which three months earlier had gone up in flames, stood like a sad monument. Sharon sat on a white plastic chair. One by one visitors came up to him. Some spoke with great compassion, as people generally speak to a man whose life's support had been taken from him. Sharon saw how they must see him: a 72-year-old man, a widower for the second time, the temporary chairman of a small dying opposition party who had nothing much left to do in life, perhaps just cry for his dead wife and joke with his doctors.

He gave them a cold, hostile look. Anyone who has worked with Sharon or against him recognized this look. Rabin would yell at people. Peres would complain. Sharon would squint his eyes as if filing the person facing him away in a secret, endless file of enemies. I knew this look from up close, from several occasions. It seared the skin like a burn. Sometimes it left a humiliating and depressing impression, other times it was worn with pride, like a medal.

Sharon did not want people to pity him. Pity - in fact, any public display of emotion - was perceived by him as weakness. It conflicted with the upbringing he received from his mother and father and contradicted the norms accepted by his generation. Two and a half years ago, when my mother died, we held a long phone conversation at night. He talked with great charm and admiration about the toughness of his parents, how his father told him, on his death bed, do you remember what I told you, forgive all your enemies? I tell you now, forget what I said, never forgive them; how his mother battled the leaders of the collective farm, how she was mad at those she was mad at and boycotted those she boycotted, all because of principles.

It was fascinating. Your mother, he finally said, was probably the same. Yes, I said, but my mother did not sleep with a rifle under the mattress.

Marit Danon, the loyal and beloved secretary of Rabin, Peres, Barak and Sharon (she took a temporary break during Netanyahu's term), sat in the orphaned bureau on Thursday. She told one of her colleagues that the pictures of November 1995, when Rabin was shot, had returned: the empty room, the unmet expectation, the commotion all around.

Mourning, like joy, is a huge producer of adrenaline. Throughout the night the prime minister's advisers and aides feverishly burned up the hospital's corridors. Up until three days ago they had been cogs in a system that performed well - certainly compared to the bureaus of previous prime ministers. He was the engine and they were the wheels. Now the machine had lost its vitality.

Sharon's leaving the scene reshuffled the deck. It created a new basis for hope for Amir Peretz as well as for Benjamin Netanyahu. It forced a test of maturity on Kadima even before the new party has been weaned. Had Sharon suffered this fatal stroke a month and a half ago, Kadima would never have been born; if he had suffered the stroke two weeks ago, the government would have fallen and perhaps an alternative government would have been established; if he had suffered the stroke in three months, on the eve of elections, Kadima would have collapsed in the polling stations.

Politics is a game of opportunity, a top politician told me this week. Take Sharon, for example: in December 2000 Netanyahu gave up running for prime minister as the Likud candidate. He feared being prime minister with only 19 Likud members in the Knesset. If he had not committed this folly, Sharon would have ended his career as an extreme right wing politician, admired by few and hated by many.

Sharon's bellicose autobiography, which was published in English - and only in English - in 1989, is called "Warrior." His flattering biography, by Nir Hefetz and Gadi Blum, published by Yediot Ahronot in 2005, is called "The Shepherd." It was opportunity that made it possible for Sharon to change from a warrior to a shepherd, to the father of the country.

Opportunity is now given to Ehud Olmert. Just a year and a bit ago he pondered whether the time had come to leave politics and devote himself to the world of business, a world in which he swims like a fish in water. Had Olmert quit, it is unlikely Sharon could have carried out disengagement, and nearly certain that he could not have split from the Likud.

Like Sharon, his views have undergone significant change. He moved from the overall, encompassing vision of not giving up one inch of the Land of Israel to a path of compromise.

What is Sharon's legacy? Is it the outposts he built or the outposts he evacuated? Is it the norms of demanding warfare he bequeathed the Israeli Army in the early 1950s? The battle he waged in Umm Katef in 1967? Crossing the Suez Canal in 1973? Or is it his entanglement in Lebanon in 1982?

Is it the tenacious sticking to the soil of Israel, to everything that grows and lives there, or is it the disregard for law and order and for the rules of the game, which reached a peak in the family violations of the election laws?

The role of a leader in Israel is full of contradictions. Every day people are killed because of orders he gives, decisions he makes. He must acquire a degree of alienation and obtuseness. He must be fanatically loyal to the basic idea that put the Jewish state here, in the heart of a hostile region. And yet he must prove to his voters and to the world that he is pragmatic, that he is willing to compromise, wants calm, stability. This makes it very difficult to form a "legacy."

Throughout his career, Sharon was an activist: He believed that if the country has the tools, it must use them. An army is meant to attack, to fight. Land is meant to be settled. Bulldozers are meant either to build or destroy, according to the wishes of the person driving.

He believed in force, and using it. From covering up the murder of Bedouins as revenge for the murder of two Israelis hiking in the southern West Bank in the 1950s, to the evacuation of the settlements of Gaza and northern Samaria.

Sharon evacuated settlements twice. The first time, in Yamit, in the Sinai peninsula, he was Menachem Begin's evacuation contractor. He regretted it later. Then he regretted his regret. The disengagement from Gaza fell entirely on his shoulders. It improved, as expected, our political and security situation, but increased the Kassam rocket pressure on Sderot and brought the rockets to the outskirts of Ashkelon. Instead of strengthening the Palestinian Authority, it provided a hothouse for anarchy.

The enormous importance of disengagement is its effect on Israeli society. Sharon dealt the myth of settling the territories a mortal blow. The public support he earned after disengagement was no less significant than disengagement itself: a huge bloc in the center of the political map came out of the closet and openly declared: We are fed up with the territories. That is the big bang. Nobody else, except for Sharon, could have generated this change.

Without him, it is not certain that Kadima will be able to maintain its achievements in the polls. There will be voters who will go home, to the Likud, to the Labor Party. But the change he generated will not die.

He did not believe in an Arab partner. If I understood him correctly, his attitude to the Arab problem has not changed much since his childhood in Kfar Malal: The Arab can be persuaded with money or with blows, not through negotiations, as an equal to an equal.

He reached the position of prime minister seasoned and ready. He steered the country over five tough years skillfully, coolly, cautiously and wisely. He was willing to pay a high price to purchase the trust of the American president, and he did. Even his image in the West and some of the Middle East changed diametrically. Once he was considered the despot ravenous for territories. Now he is considered a courageous pragmatist. "When the name Sharon comes up in any foreign ministry," a foreign diplomat told me this week, "the automatic response is courageous. It has become a cliché."

Ironically, Israel's image now is less favorable than that of Sharon. There is a crisis in relations with the American bureaucracy. The Palestinian Authority is collapsing on our doorstep, and Iran is developing, despite our strong objections, nuclear capability. "Sharon will bring peace" was the Likud slogan in 2003. Sharon brought disengagement, Sharon brought a reduction in terror and renewed economic growth, but where is peace, and where are we?

Sharon's Shikmim Farm is situated on the site of the small Arab village of Hodj. Before the War of Independence and in the course of it, the residents of Hodj were agents of Hagana, the secret Jewish self-defense force. It was many years before Sharon leased the land. As part of the secret policy that was basically adopted throughout southern Israel, the Arab residents of Hodj were expelled to the Gaza Strip. They were promised that when the battles ended they would be allowed to come back. This was a lie. When the Egyptians took control of Gaza, they executed the mukhtar of Hodj on charges of collaborating with Israel.

One day, as I was driving to meet Sharon on the farm, I saw him driving an ATV on a dirt path, parallel to the road. Lily sat behind, barely holding him around the waist. This was before Sharon was prime minister, when he was still allowed to drive. I chased them in my car. His guards pulled their guns. Later they relaxed.

Give me a tour of Hodj, I asked. Sharon refused. I asked again. Nearly begged. Unwillingly he agreed.

The Arab village is on the southern side of the road, in an area Sharon called "upper Bangkok" because of the Thai contract workers who live there, under the hill on which Lily Sharon is now buried. Not much is left of the village. A few terraces. A well. Remnants of a building. Gradually Sharon's love of the land overcame his initial reluctance. He explained to me what every stone was used for. But only when we reached the bull pen did he get truly enthusiastic. He introduced me to Amnon, his prize stud bull. Sharon spoke about him with the enthusiasm a father speaks of a son.

Here, on this lovely hill, which is beautiful mainly in winter, next to Lily, near Upper Bangkok, the calf pen and the bull pen, over the ruins of Hodj, Ariel Sharon will reach his final resting place.

(Nahum Barnea is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. This article was adapted from his column of Jan. 6, and translated by Israel News Today.)