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Former prime minister Ariel Sharon's tenure as prime minister formally ended two weeks ago and with the expected formation of interim prime minister Ehud Olmert's new government next week, he will finally make the symbolic move to Sharon's former chair.
Along with Sharon's departure, many of the people who used to have the prime minister's ear will move on as well. Olmert convened an emotional parting meeting on Tuesday with the group of influential Sharon advisers who became known as the "ranch forum," because of the consultations Sharon held at his home.
While Olmert may consult with a former Sharon adviser every once in a while, the era of Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad is for the most part over and the era of Yoram Turbowitz and Ovad Yehezkel has begun.
Along with the better-known gurus like Adler and Arad, most of the youthful cadre of advisers who surrounded the prime minister will also be leaving the Prime Minister's Office. One of the least known but most influential of the group is Sharon's political adviser, Erez Halfon, a 34-year-old Givat Shmuel native, who was often seen on television in the background, whispering into the prime minister's ear.
Halfon will meet with Olmert soon to discuss a possible position in the new government. After seven years with Sharon, the last four as political adviser, Halfon looked back at his time behind the scenes with Sharon in an interview Thursday with The Jerusalem Post.
What does it feel like to see the Sharon era ending?
In my worst dreams, I never thought Sharon's service to Israel would end like this. This man who did so much for the country should have been able to end his political career in a more respectful way. That's why it's so sad and tragic, especially after the brave steps he took to change the political map and form Kadima.
Some people say that only Sharon could have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. Is the same thing true of the West Bank?
I think that Sharon is the only prime minister who could have disengaged from Gaza because of his determination and the support he had from the people and the security forces. In the pressured time before disengagement, in every meeting he had, he said disengagement would happen because it's right for Israel. Olmert was chosen by Arik [Sharon] and he learned a lot from him. After the public saw the success of disengagement, Olmert will be able to implement the convergence plan successfully. Sharon cooled down the water.
Will not being a general make it harder for Olmert than it was for Sharon to implement withdrawals?
There are many differences between Olmert and Arik, but Ehud understands how the country should be run, and you don't have to be a general to handle convergence. If Ehud were a general, there's no doubt it would be easier, but he can do it.
Doesn't the violence in Amona prove that Olmert can't pull off what Sharon did?
At Amona, Olmert did what Arik would have done. Arik gave the order to evacuate the outpost. I think we had to show determination. The settlers were more physical at Amona because they wanted to test Olmert. Olmert was professional, not political, and he didn't want anyone to be wounded.
Did Sharon really declare Olmert his successor?
When Arik formed Kadima, he designated Olmert as his successor. He appointed him finance minister and said he would be his number two. Arik thought he would live to be 100. But he knew he would have to pass on the baton. I think that in 2010, he would have given the job to Olmert.
Didn't Sharon say he wouldn't carry out another unilateral disengagement, while Olmert said the opposite?
I don't think Arik would have stayed in places that have become a security and financial burden for the state. He had in his head a map of what the West Bank would look like that is similar to what Olmert will do and he wanted to implement it during his term. He wanted to draw Israel's border.
What mistakes has Olmert made that Sharon wouldn't have made?
Everyone makes mistakes, but Olmert is running the country well. Coalition negotiations are difficult. Even with Arik, there were things we did and corrected later.
How would Sharon have felt about seeing the Likud fall under Bibi?
It would have pained him to see the Likud crash. But he would understand that the MKs caused it by looking out for their own interests and not considering what the nation wanted. The nation punished the Likud justifiably for the extremist path of the "rebels" before and after disengagement and for their attempts to topple a prime minister whom people loved. Most of those MKs are no longer in the Knesset.
Can the Likud make a comeback?
The Likud can recover if it removes a few people. The Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu absolutely cannot return to power. After the mistakes Bibi made, the zigzags ahead of disengagement and his shameful resignation, there are people who cannot stand hearing his name. He would help the party if he were to leave it.
What did Sharon think of Netanyahu?
That he only did things for his personal interest and not for the nation. He thought Bibi looked at what would help himself in the party, and he was willing to burn bridges with the Americans. When he quit, he didn't think of the impact on the stock market. Sharon always knew who Bibi was and would never turn his back when he was around.
What did Sharon think about the way Limor Livnat turned against him and called him corrupt the day before he suffered his stroke?
He thought it was shameful, inhumane and unfriendly behavior. Luckily, we knew she would never appreciate what Arik did for her, so it wasn't a surprise, but we expected that the day before Sharon was scheduled for a bypass operation, people wouldn't behave the way she did. We in the Prime Minister's Office received many negative reactions about her from the nation, but we decided not to respond to them because of what happened to Arik.
What did Sharon think about the Likud MKs who tried to topple him?
Those were happy days when we saw the love that Arik received from the nations of the world at the UN, while people in the party were trying to oust him. His respect from the world was at its peak while I had to shame myself in Likud internal courts to try to delay the vote to topple him and fight Likud MKs who didn't understand what a treasure they had. The joy was that he won both battles.
Do you still go to the hospital every day?
Most days. My goal is to make sure Arik's way continues. I worked 24 hours a day during the election to make sure Olmert would be elected and Kadima would be the ruling party. What gave me the strength to go on was that I wanted to tell Arik when he woke up that his path had won. If I had one wish to ask God it would be for this great man to wake up and return to his ranch and see that what he wanted to happen politically came true. I know how much this nation loved him. Since Ben-Gurion, there hasn't been a prime minister the nation loved so much.
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