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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Veteran war correspondent Uri Dan - best known for his friendship with Ariel Sharon and his prediction in 1973 that the then controversial military commander would one day become prime minister - died Sunday morning at age 71 following a brief battle with lung cancer.
Upon learning that he was seriously ill in July, Dan opted to keep his cancer a secret from the public. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in October, he said that he wanted to continue working and didn't want to be perceived as someone who was ill.
His close friend and a former spokesman for Sharon, Ra'anan Gissin, recalled how the pair spoke of his illness while sitting in a cafe near Dan's home.
Uri Dan's last column: Nov. 16, 2006
Sharon's harrowed hagiographer
Gissin recalled Dan telling him, "Work is the best cure. I am not stopping."
In mid-November, Dan traveled with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Washington to meet with US President George W. Bush. He filed his final stories that same week.
After the meeting, he remained in the US for a tour to promote his new book, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait, which came out in October in English and French. A Hebrew version is due to be released soon.
But Dan never got to complete his tour. In New York, according to his son Oron, he had trouble breathing and was hospitalized.
"Our goal was to bring him back to Israel no matter what," Oron told The Jerusalem Post, where his father worked as a columnist since 1994. Three weeks ago he was transferred to Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, where he died.
In a telephone interview from New York, Myron Rushetzky, who had worked with Dan at The New York Post, said he had a feeling he was seeing Dan - who had been the Middle East correspondent there for 25 years - for the last time when he stopped in the office the day before his hospitalization.
Rushetzky recalled how Dan took out his new book on Sharon and pointed to a photograph of himself in the book that had been taken after a battle in the 1950s in which he was "lucky" that he had not died.
Dan added at the time, "I have been lucky for 50 years," recalled Rushetzky, who as the supervisor for support staff at the Post spoke with Dan almost every day during his tenure at the paper.
As he spoke to him that day, "I was thinking: 'Was this going to be the last time?' It was almost like I was saying goodbye," recalled Rushetzky.
Dan was born in Tel Aviv as Shlomo Uri, but adopted the pen name Uri Dan when he began writing at age 19, said Oron. He was so widely known by that name that even his wife called him Uri, added Oron.
From the start, he wanted to be a journalist. It was a passion that burned within him all his life, said Oron. He was not the kind of reporter who wrote from the office. He knew from the beginning that he needed to be out in the field experiencing the story in order to write it, said Oron.
It was thus that Dan first encountered Sharon in 1954 in what would prove to be a fateful meeting. During his work as a military correspondent for the weekly Bamahaneh, he had heard of a secret unit under Sharon that led retaliatory raids. He arrived in the middle of the night to visit Sharon to see for himself what the story was about and to ask if he could accompany the unit.
Upset that a reporter knew of the unit's existence, Sharon quizzed Dan unsuccessfully about his sources. In his book, Dan wrote, "Many years later Sharon told me that his friendship for me began that night, when I refused to reveal my sources. He liked that."
Dan followed Sharon into military and political battles for the rest of their lives.
During the Yom Kippur War, as he went with Sharon across the Suez Canal, Dan was so moved by the moment that he told the Post during a recent interview he understood the role Sharon would later play in Israel's history and vowed that he would do whatever he could to help him throughout the rest of their lives.
"You were not there to see him when everything was burning in the Suez Canal," said Dan. "I helped him because I had seen him at crucial moments, saving Jews."
In 1973, when Sharon was forced out of the army, Oron said that his father predicted, "Those who do not want him as chief of staff will get him as defense minister, and those who won't accept him as defense minister will get him as prime minister."
In 1983, when Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister following the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in which at least 700 Palestinians were killed in refugee camps by Lebanese Christian Phalangists, Dan repeated the second half of his prediction.
Oron said that even he had been skeptical. "I knew Sharon and I knew that he was demonized. Still, I told him, 'Dad, they hate him so much there is no chance that he will be prime minister.'"
Dan wrote two other books about Sharon, Sharon's Bridgehead about the Suez Canal crossing, and Blood Libel, in which he portrayed Sharon's battle in the courts to clear his name against accusations by Time magazine that he was responsible for the killings in Shabra and Shatilla.
But it was the last book, published just two months before his death, that Dan was most proud of.
"I would have died of sorrow if I had not written this book," Dan told The Jerusalem Post.
He recalled how he and Sharon spoke of the day when after Sharon retired from politics the two would sit at his farm and Dan would write Sharon's biography.
Instead, he did it while Sharon lay in a coma, with the intention of writing an even larger manuscript at some future date. He told the Postthat he still had many more chapters left to write about Sharon and other topics, even though he had been enormously prolific throughout his life having written, according to his son, more than 20 books which were published in Hebrew, English and French. One was the enormously popular 90 Minutes at Entebbe which, according to Oron, was translated into 16 languages including Japanese. He did all this while writing daily news stories and columns. Outside of his work for The Jerusalem Post and The New York Post, he worked for the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv, was a contributor to Fox News and had in the past worked for West Germany's Stern magazine.
In 1979, he won the Overseas Press Club Award for Best Magazine Interpretation of Foreign Affairs for a series of articles entitled "The Untold Story of the Mideast Peace Talks" that he wrote with Sidney Zion that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. At the time it was the highest press award a foreign journalist could receive in the United States, said Oron.
In preparation for his father's 70th birthday, Oron said, he went into the Ma'ariv archives which he found filled with scoops and front-page headlines with his father's byline on them.
After the Entebbe raid in 1976, he had the only interview with the Ugandan leader Idi Amin, said Oron.
Gissin, who first met Dan in 1982, said he was a "real classical investigative reporter." He set the standard of what it meant to be a military correspondent in Israel, said Gissin.
Israel in the 1950s and 1960s was in the grip of tight censorship. The only way you could cover the war was to be in the war. In pursuit of getting the story, Dan even underwent military training so he could be on the battlefield with the soldiers, said Gissin.
"He was not an armchair military analyst, he had to be right there with the troops. He set an example for honest journalism, where you tell the story because you were there on the spot, where your dateline is really your byline," said Gissin.
In 1973, the family was living in Brussels while Dan worked as a correspondent for Ma'ariv. Six months before the start of the Yom Kippur War, which caught the country by surprise, Dan wrote two articles about the fact that the surrounding Arab countries were preparing to attack Israel. He so believed it that he told the paper he was returning to Israel to cover that war.
He told them, "I am betraying my duty as a journalist sitting there instead of here. Because he saw what was going to happen, we came back to Israel," Oron said.
Dan created a standard for "combative journalism, the kind of journalism where you fight for the truth, where you go after the story, where you do not allow any extraneous considerations to stop you from the pursuit of the truth," said Gissin.
He did not hesitate to state his opinion and, in spite of his support and admiration for Sharon, he was quick to disagree with him when he needed to, said Gissin. So he made no bones about the fact that he thought disengagement was a mistake, and even appeared on Channel 1 prior to the Gaza withdrawal wearing an orange tie as a statement of identification with the settlers. "One could agree with him or disagree with him, but you could not help appreciate the straightforward and uncompromising" manner in which he worked, Gissin said.
But more than his work as a journalist, Dan leaves a legacy as a loyal friend, recalled Gissin.
"In my job as spokesman you acquire many acquaintances and few friends. He was one of the few and the best of them all," said Gissin.
In writing a card for Dan on his 70th birthday, Sharon himself summed up Dan's life in this way.
"You, Uri, have had the privilege of seeing how the words you have written and the images you have taken over the course of 50 years recount in the most absorbing way an experience that few others have lived through. Better still: you have captured forever the decisive moments of the historical rebirth of the Jewish nation in its homeland.
"For me, you have been and you always will be a thorough and resourceful journalist, a writer and an adviser, a professional without fear or prejudice. Above all, you are a true friend."
Dan is survived by his wife of 43 years, Varda, and their only child, Oron. The funeral is scheduled for noon on Tuesday in the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery.
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