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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
"Mr. Pfeffer, did you hear they're closing down the paper?" Mine wasn't the only head to turn around to see who was shouting shrilly in Hebrew across a crowded corridor in the UN building in New York. It was Uri Dan, who had just heard from his wife back in Israel of a rumor that a newspaper for which we were both writing at the time was in danger of closing.
He didn't care who stared; he just wanted to talk over the latest news. Like the best of reporters, he was an inveterate gossip, ready at any moment to discuss anything, from the latest dirt on erstwhile colleagues to historical nuggets from his wild days as Israel's first real military correspondent.
I wasn't a friend of Uri Dan, who died from cancer on Sunday, but over the last couple of years I saw quite a bit of him, and we spoke occasionally on the phone. Like everyone else, I knew of him as "Sharon's shofar," the ultimate crony, and believed that the relationship between the two was the only reason he had survived in journalism for so long. After I got to know him and spoke to a few people who remembered his early career, I began to think that he actually paid a heavy social and professional price for his loyalty to Ariel Sharon.
For almost two decades, Dan had been the country's leading military correspondent, founder of the "with the forces in the field" genre of journalism in the Israeli media, star reporter for the most popular paper in the country. But in his later years, he was an outcast.
During that visit to New York with Sharon, it struck me how both groups in the prime minister's entourage kept their distance from Dan. The diplomatic correspondents, instead of treating him as an elder, didn't want to be seen with him, while Sharon's young advisers tried to keep him away from his old friend. "Please don't write again that he's Arik's confidant," said one of them, "they're really not in contact anymore."
Dan didn't seem to care; at 70 his perspective wasn't tomorrow's headlines. "Just look at the irony," he said when we were waiting for Sharon to emerge from another meeting with a head of state. "Fifty years ago, the UN was denouncing Israel for operations that Arik led, and now they're falling over each other to bring out the red carpet for him."
He chortled with the excitement of a child when I found him a copy of the official program including Sharon's speech in front of the General Assembly, a new addition for his extensive archives.
As a young soldier-reporter for the IDF's Bamahaneh magazine, he had joined up with Paratrooper Battalion 890, commanded by the then Maj. Sharon, accompanied it on dangerous retribution operations behind enemy lines and parachuted into Mitla Pass in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. A generation of Israelis grew up on his lively reports from the battlefields, first in Bamahaneh and later in Ma'ariv.
It was old-fashioned journalism, in the sense that Dan was never objective. He always knew whose side he was on: He was an unabashed Zionist and ardent supporter of the IDF, but unlike many colleagues during that period, he wasn't a general-worshipper who spent his days in the corridors of the high command. He preferred to see events from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers and junior officers out in the field.
The one exception to this rule was his unstinting loyalty to Sharon, who by the end of the 1960s was fighting a bitter personal battle for promotion to the highest echelons of the army. Dan was the leading cheerleader of a growing Arik cult, which began in the early '50s when the name of the young paratroop commander, still a state secret, was whispered between youngsters preparing for their IDF service. It reached its apogee in 1973, when Sharon infuriated the other generals by crossing the Suez Canal without authorization during the Yom Kippur War.
At least at the public level, the myth worked. In the aftermath of that traumatic war, when trust in the military and political leadership was at an all-time low, Sharon was regarded as a national savior and was greeted by soldiers singing "Arik King of Israel" at every army base he visited. But the glory was fleeting and Sharon was booted out of the army, never to achieve his goal of becoming chief of General Staff.
His checkered military career was followed by an equally erratic political one. Dan famously coined the catchphrase "those who don't want him as chief of General Staff will one day get him as defense minister." It was updated in 1983, after the Kahan Commission decided to depose him from that post for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, to "... will one day get him as prime minister."
Half a century of total loyalty obviously clouded Dan's professional judgment on numerous occasions, but two major points remain to his credit. He was far from being the only senior Israeli journalist to cross the line between balanced reporting and adulation of a general or politician. Over the years, many of his colleagues have been guilty of the same offense, but unlike them, Dan never hid his loyalties. While extolling Sharon as the ultimate Israeli leader, both on and off the battlefield, he admitted that "when it comes to Arik, I'm not objective."
The other thing that set him apart was that he stayed with his champion through thick and thin. He remained loyal when Sharon was shunted to minor commands, civilian ignominy and, above all, during his almost two decades in the political wilderness after the first Lebanon war, when Sharon was regarded as a political outcast, a local and international pariah, never again to be considered as a candidate for the top job.
The heavy price Dan paid for his loyalty was that the generation of Israelis who began reading newspapers only after his glory days as a reporter knew him only as Sharon's court jester and not as the fine journalist he was and remained, despite it all. Ultimately it was an image he had chosen for himself, but many contemporaries and former colleagues, who lined up to pay tribute this week, played a role in pushing him out of the consensus. He had no respect for these leading lights of Israeli journalism and the nicknames he used for some of them are unprintable.
He stayed true even when, after Sharon became one of the most popular prime ministers in history, he was exiled by a new group of hangers-on from his old friend's inner circle. He even swallowed his pride when, after receiving regular slots as a commentator on major radio and television shows, he was ridiculed by anchors half his age as Sharon's crony and for his staunchly right-wing views. Though obviously opposed to disengagement from the Gaza Strip, even then he didn't break ranks and continued believing in Arik.
Ironically at that stage, after being excoriated for decades by the Left, he also began taking fire from his own political side. In his last years, along with his writing for The Jerusalem Post and Ma'ariv, he also wrote a column in the right-wing weekly Makor Rishon, whose editor Amnon Lord remembered this week that after Sharon's decision to dismantle settlements, irate readers wrote to him demanding the paper cancel Dan's column.
Perhaps irrationally, he continued to believe to the last that Sharon would recover from his coma and continued writing, appearing on television and reporting from Israel for The New York Post until his long battle with lung cancer forced him into the hospital a few weeks ago.
One of his most frustrating and endearing practices was that when a reporter would call him up for his take on something Sharon had just said or done, he would drop a few hints and then say: "That's all. The real stuff I'm keeping for myself; I'm also a journalist you know."