It was well after midnight when Ariel Sharon, visiting Russia a fortnight ago, met with a group of generals and senior commanders from Tamanskaya, the crack tank division.

“You taught us many valuable lessons in tank warfare 30 years ago during the Six Day War, one of them told the infrastructure minister. We had to rewrite our textbooks. What was your secret?” Moshe Dayan felt a similar admiration for Sharon, describing him many years ago as the “greatest field commander in Israeli military history.”

But Sharon wasn’t keen to discuss how he led his reserve force against the crack armored Egyptian division at Um Katef in the Sinai, breaking its resistance with a brilliant, unorthodox maneuver and opening the door for Israel’s famous “desert victory” in the 1967 war. (America’s West Point is just one of the world’s military academies teaching Sharon’s now-classic strategy.) But to Sharon, it’s all history. He’s much more interested in the future.

So he told the awestruck Russians: “Let us toast peace, not war. Instead of talking about tanks, let us conclude a deal in which my country uses your natural gas for its energy needs.”

Clinching this deal was Sharon’s reason for being in Russia. He wanted to “divert” to Israel some of the $150 billion worth of Russian gas that flows annually to Europe.

As tongues became loosened by the plenteous vodka on hand, a Russian diplomat whispered to Sharon: “I follow Israeli politics closely. How is it that your enemies repeatedly write your obituary and yet, like the phoenix, you rise from the ashes and fly high again? “We all know,” the diplomat went on, “how in 1973 our protege Anwar Sadat was about to crush you. Yet you turned the tables against him. Is it true that it took a week for you to convince your high command that the only way to win the war was to cross the Suez Canal and surround the Egyptians from the rear?” Replied Sharon, “To my everlasting sorrow, it took 10 days. We could have turned the tide of war without so many casualties, had we attacked sooner.

But now,” he added, “let us talk about peace.”

The Russian persisted: “But what about all the times your enemies have written you off?” “At such times,” Sharon responded, “I turn to face the pallbearers at my funeral, and fight back. It’s as s i mp l e as that.”

Clearly Sharon’s history is mesmerizing to former enemies. The Russian scenario was replayed when Sharon visited Aqaba recently with Prime Minister Netanyahu to resolve the water crisis with Jordan. Thanks to Sharon’s experience as agriculture minister (he has also held the defense, industry and trade and housing and construction portfolios) a deal with the Jordanians was struck within hours.

During the discussions, the Jordanians couldn’t stop themselves from asking Sharon about the battle he fought in 1948 as an 18-year-old company commander at Latrun, which was held by the Jordanian Legion.

Remarking that it was indeed a tough assignment for a youngster, Sharon changed the subject to sheep-breeding techniques that could benefit both countries.

Uri Dan, one of the writers of this column, has been on friendly terms with Sharon for most of his adult life (as he was with Yitzhak Rabin). He once asked Sharon why he challenged Time over the magazine’s publication of lies about him.

Sharon’s reply: “I have never shirked a fight, either for my country, or for my principles.”

Sharon’s court case against Time “was a great moral victory, even though it could not be proved they were motivated by malice.

“I am also suing Haaretz for spreading lies in a 1991 article, accusing me of misleading then prime minister Begin during the Lebanon war. As with Time, it was pure character assassination.”

Convinced they have a strong case against him, Haaretz called Maj.-Gen.

Avigdor Ben-Gal, who commanded three divisions in 1982, to detail Sharon’s alleged perfidy. They were relying on Ben-Gal’s reputation as a war hero who had saved the Golan in 1973 from the Syrians.

And up to last Sunday, Ben-Gal was the darling of the Left. No one could have been fiercer in criticizing Sharon over his alleged misleading of Begin.

Then Sunday turned out to be a remarkable day in the life of a man his critics call a has-been.

First, Netanyahu tried to persuade Sharon to accept the finance portfolio to save a crisis-stricken government.

Then, virtually simultaneously, Ben-Gal caused near- apoplexy among Haaretz’s lawyers in court.

They couldn’t believe their ears when they heard their star performer confess: Fifteen years ago, I was angry with Sharon for forcing me out of the army.

What I said then was rubbish; it was nonsense.

“Sharon didn’t mislead Begin. On the contrary, he coordinated and confirmed his plans with the premier before the war even started. All of us who said anything else are guilty of an evil.

“I want to use this opportunity,” Ben- Gal said, “to set the matter straight.”

The courage needed for this confession converted Ben-Gal instantly from liberals’ darling into ultimate traitor.

Left-wing circles have already launched a campaign to smear his character, implying sinister reasons for his retraction.

But Ben-Gal has proved himself an officer and a gentleman in the very best sense of the term. To these writers, he said simply, “I did my duty.”

Whether or not Netanyahu agrees to Sharon’s demand that he widen his “kitchen cabinet” to include him in deliberations about defense and other vital state interests, Sharon’s attitude is clear.

“This isn’t an ego trip,” he says. “I am deeply worried about our defense in light of the growing Palestinian army in the heart of Israel.

“The seriousness of the issue cannot be overstated. I feel I can play a role by being directly involved in the decision- making.”

Sharon has more experience in running government ministries than anyone else currently in the cabinet. As that Russian diplomat might have put it: “Woe to him who seeks to bury the phoenix.” • This opinion piece first appeared in The Jerusalem Post daily edition on June 26, 1997.

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