‘Politics is like a wheel; sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. The main thing is to stay on the wheel,” Ariel Sharon used to say. It sums up his philosophy and is as inextricably identified with him as a second well-publicized quote from a Yehudit Ravitz song, first attributed to him when he became prime minister: “Dvarim she’roim misham, lo roim mikan,” “Things you see from there, you don’t see from here.”
Ariel Sharon was a “Man for All Seasons,” multifaceted, complex; a man people loved to hate and loved to love. Many people had both those emotions at different stages of Sharon’s life.
That life, which ended on January 11, is so intertwined with the country’s history that you cannot study modern Israel without his name leaping from the page, and you cannot write about Sharon without relating to the ups and downs of the state.
I was a relative newcomer to the Sharon phenomenon. Growing up, I heard the stories of his bravery in the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, when Sharon went from being a war hero to being a legend, but my first strong memories stem from the bitter First Lebanon War.
It was a time when soldiers sang a ditty to him in a black parody of a children’s song, “Come down to us, airplane, and take us to Lebanon; there we will fight for Sharon, and return in a coffin.” Even those of us who understood the need to take action in Lebanon, the relentless missiles and cross-border terrorist attacks having become insufferable leading up to June 1982, were not enthusiastic about the campaign that took fighting friends and relatives ever deeper into what became known as the “Lebanese mud.” Israel’s Vietnam.
Sharon was vilified worldwide after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre – although it was local Christians who butchered the Palestinians there.
By the first time I met him in person, sometime in the early 1990s, I was prepared not to like him. Strangely, my strongest memory of that meeting is not so much of Ariel Sharon as of his wife, Lily.
Ever elegant, wearing something with the butterfly motif she favored, Lily exchanged a certain look with “Arik.” It was a look of love, and it was so striking that I mentioned it to another reporter, who filled me in on another piece of Sharon’s incredible history – how after the death in a car crash of his first wife, Margalit, he had grown closer to her sister, who helped look after Arik’s son, her nephew, Gur. Eventually, they married and had two more sons together, before tragedy struck again and Gur was killed in an accident involving one of his father’s antique guns.
Sharon was a man who loved life and enjoyed it, perhaps because he had lost so many of those who were close to him.
As parliamentary reporter in the mid- to late 1990s, I followed Sharon’s ups and downs.
I learned to recognize his laugh, to appreciate his humor, respect his views and marvel at the way he got things done.
The nickname “The Bulldozer” was wellearned.
As construction and housing minister, Sharon made sure that the million new immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union were provided with homes. He welcomed them as newcomers to their ancestral home. Describing Sharon as a Zionist was probably the best compliment someone could pay him.
Sharon clung to the wheel in government and in opposition, even when it took him on a very bumpy ride.
My strongest memory of Sharon in the Knesset says a lot about him (in the positive sense) and a lot about Israeli politics in a far from flattering way.
In February 1996, a week before a string of post-Oslo Accord Palestinian bus bombings, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee convened for a meeting.
Then-head of Military Intelligence Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon came specially to brief the panel. He warned of the impending wave of terror, but only two MKs were present to hear him: committee chairman Haggai Merom (Labor) and Likud MK Ariel Sharon. Nearly all the other committee members were on the road, busy with primary election campaigns.
With his immense size, facial tic, unique voice and controversial military background, Sharon was a caricaturist’s dream and the satirist’s perfect model. He took his work – whatever job he was in charge of getting done – seriously, but he knew how to laugh at himself and share a joke. He was the first to realize that reporters like me would use phrases like “larger than life” and “putting his considerable weight” behind a certain project. He also made quips about his girth and his work, famously describing the prime minister’s position as a being “a hard job – one that everyone wants.”
Sharon has been praised, and blamed, for so much that I wonder what he would have made of his funeral this week – attended by foreign dignitaries such as Joe Biden and Tony Blair.
He objected to the Madrid peace conference under Yitzhak Shamir but helped negotiate the Wye River Memorandum under Binyamin Netanyahu. He was accused – incorrectly in my opinion – of igniting the second intifada with his visit to the Temple Mount. He built settlements – “run from hilltop to hilltop” is another phrase associated with him – and yet he also earned his place in history as the man who dismantled them, carrying out the final evacuation from Sinai as part of the peace agreement with Egypt.
Overshadowing almost everything else he did was his decision to unilaterally pull out from Gaza, uprooting all the Jewish communities that flourished there.
The common thread was the courage to make decisions, and stand by them. To be a leader.
In another incident which demonstrates the immense power with which Sharon was credited, in November 2002 an attorney from the Tel Aviv State Prosecutor’s Office, Liora Glatt-Berkovitch, leaked details of one of the several investigations against Sharon, with the aim of ruining his electoral campaign, reportedly out of fear that Sharon would take the country to war at a time when her son was being drafted to the IDF. It is, in my mind, one of the most disturbing attempts to interfere with the country’s democratic process.
It is ironic, however, that Sharon – once demonized by the Left – became its darling as his disengagement plan progressed. In fact a new term was coined to reflect his extraordinary status: Sharon became known as an “etrog,” the super-protected citrus fruit that is one of the Four Species.
At the same time, however, there were those (mainly) on the Right who accused him of using the Gaza withdrawal to deflect attention from the investigations into various cases.
When he had his stroke in 2006, some said it was a result of the pressure of disengagement.
I wondered if it wasn’t caused in part by the stress of the ongoing police inquiries. Either way, it seemed the most un-Sharon-like act. Clinging to the wheel of life, in a coma, for another eight years was far more in keeping with Sharon’s character.
For his burial, the IDF provided full military honors and a gun salute. It also provided Iron Dome coverage against possible missile strikes from Gaza on the Sharon family’s southern ranch where the funeral took place. Later that evening, two projectiles were fired across the de facto border.
When I was interviewed on Alhurra Television this week I was asked whether I think Israel has another leader capable of taking the steps that Sharon did toward peace. It’s not an easy question, because decision-makers today cannot ignore the fact that Israel did not get peace or even quiet following any withdrawal.
There are no winners or losers in the game of “What if?” Had Sharon remained strong and in power, would the Palestinians in Gaza have fired so many rockets at Israel? And who can say how Sharon would have responded if sporadic firing looked set to become the barrage Israel ultimately suffered? After eight years in a coma, at the age of 85, Sharon left the wheel, with its ups and downs. No one can conquer the circle of life. What he now sees from there that he didn’t see from here, we can only guess – each according to their own idea of Arik Sharon. I hope he can finally rest in peace, next to the wife he adored, buried in the land he loved so much.
firstname.lastname@example.org The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.