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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Prime minister Ariel Sharon surprised his longtime confidant Uri Dan a year ago during Succot when he suggested to him that they should sit down together for six months at Sharon's Negev ranch and work on his biography.
At the time, Sharon had no idea that he would suffer a career-ending stroke three months later. He wanted to write the book after his retirement from politics, which he hoped would be in 2010, after another term as prime minister.
But a publisher had approached Sharon about writing an authorized biography and he said he would only agree if Uri Dan would be the author. Dan, who is the Israel correspondent for The New York Post and a columnist for this newspaper, started working on the book shortly thereafter, gathering together thousands of pages of journal entries that he wrote throughout five decades of covering and working with Sharon.
The book, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait, will be released next week in English and French and next month in Hebrew. The English release date of October 31 symbolically marks the 50th anniversary of the day that Dan parachuted over the Mitla pass behind enemy Egyptian lines under Sharon's command, in an operation in which 38 soldiers were killed and 120 wounded out of a unit of 200 soldiers.
It was that day when Dan, 71, vowed to help Sharon however he could. Dan said Sharon's stroke inspired him to write the book at a fast pace so he could tell the world that there was a different side to the man he was close with for longer than any other man alive today.
"I wanted to tell a human story of a man who fought against all odds," Dan told The Jerusalem Post in an interview at a Tel Aviv restaurant. "This is the story of my life, of my friendship with a man who I foresaw would play a major role in Israel's defense and its future."
Dan was filled with joy when he held a copy of his newly published book in his hands for the first time and saw the pictures inside featuring him together with Sharon in historical moments. But it was a bittersweet moment for Dan, because Sharon still lies unconscious at the Sheba Hospital, Tel Hashomer.
"I wanted to write many more chapters together with him," Dan said. "I wanted to bring him the book."
Dan described the book as "the encyclopedia of a Jewish hero." The journalist, who was born with the name Dan Uri, but wrote under the byline Uri Dan because it "sounded better," grew up reading history books. He said he knew he was meeting a man who would become a historical figure when he saw Sharon for the first time.
Sharon advised Dan to keep a journal, and he would often motion to Dan during historical events and even personal traumatic experiences to make sure he would write down what he said. Dan would often reply to Sharon, "Ariel, you work faster than I write."
"I never thought I would write a book about Sharon's historical role and stature," Dan said. "But in many years of being with him in times of pain, joy and personal tragedies, I said to myself that since I am a journalist, I should keep a journal. I decided 40 years ago that everything should be written down."
The result is a book of conversations with Sharon that takes readers through his words and thought processes during the events that became integral parts of Israel's history, as if they were the proverbial fly on the wall.
CHANCES ARE there will never be a more sympathetic book written about Sharon, par for the course for Uri Dan, who has defiantly defended Sharon during all his years as a journalist and during the years he served as Sharon's spokesman at the Defense Ministry.
When Sharon was removed from the Defense Ministry in February 1983 at the urgency of the Kahan Commission that investigated the events at Sabra and Shatilla, Dan uttered the line that was later seen as prophetic: "Those who did not accept him as defense minister will have to accept him as prime minister."
Dan said that Sharon didn't like it when he said that line, but after his prime ministerial election victory 18 years later, he gave Dan the credit for constantly believing in him.
"If I had been wrong and he had never become prime minister, he would still have been dear to me," Dan said, explaining why he wrote down so many pages of notes on Sharon over the years.
Dan said the acclaim that Sharon received in the last five years of his career did not make him forget the times "when there wasn't a dog to give him a glass of water."
"Today, a majority of the Jews miss him," Dan said. "But the same people used to mock me for supporting him and I never gave a damn."
Unlike most Israelis, Dan has not given up hope that Sharon will come back and emerge from his nine-month coma. He said that after witnessing Sharon overcome so many challenges in the past, he learned to never doubt him.
When Sharon suffered his second stroke, Israel braced for a state funeral. But Dan told everyone he encountered at the Herzliya Conference soon after that Sharon had plenty of life left in him.
"They already set the funeral for Monday, cleaned the square of the Knesset and got the burial plot ready," Dan revealed. "I said Sharon defended his country 20,000 days, so the least you could do is give him 200 hours. Sharon's struggle for his life is typical of his struggle all along for his people: Against all odds and full of spirit."
THE IRONY of Dan portraying Sharon as an untarnished "hero of the Jewish people" is that the two men argued throughout their lives, culminating in Sharon's final two controversial moves that Dan vocally opposed: the Gaza Strip disengagement and the formation of Kadima.
Dan's appearance on Channel 1 wearing an orange tie ahead of the Gaza Strip withdrawal was seen as the ultimate act of defiance of a hagiographer against the saint he worshiped. In an interview with the Post at the time, Dan explained away his difference of opinion with Sharon, saying that he would have agreed with the move had Sharon explained his reasons for the move to the public and held a national referendum.
But Sharon was deeply hurt by Dan's opposition and he openly sparred with him on a visit to Paris a month ahead of the withdrawal. Dan said that when Sharon saw him on television in the tie, he turned off the TV in anger and told a mutual friend that his former spokesman "doesn't miss an opportunity to take a stab at me."
Looking back on the disengagement, Dan said he still believes that history
judge Sharon in a favorable light despite the negative results of the withdrawal. He said Sharon made the move not because he thought it would bring peace, but because he wanted to ensure that Israel would permanently hold on to as much of the West Bank as possible.
"It's too early to judge Sharon on what he has done," Dan said. "What looks now like a mistake, in 10-20 years could be remembered as one of the most important decisions that a leader of this country has made. One should judge Sharon based on what he wanted to do - to take advantage of the withdrawal in the south to keep the heartland in our hands."
Dan said that Sharon was incredibly sensitive, which he said came from the emotional impact of losing his first son Gur in an accident - the only child he had with his first wife, Margalit. Due to this sensitivity, he took to heart the criticism from the Right, ahead of the withdrawal.
"The uprooting of the Jews broke him," Dan said. Dan said that the disengagement is still a touchy subject for him. When it was raised, Dan could not fight back tears as he said, "I couldn't help him. He got into a difficult situation."
IN THE COURSE of the two-hour interview, Dan only once sounded relieved at Sharon's inability to see the results of his handiwork. He said that had he seen the results of the March 28 election, he would have regretted creating Kadima.
He recalled that Sharon's goal in forming the new party was to win the election by a landslide and create a super-stable government that could take big diplomatic steps and electoral reforms. The 29 seats that Olmert won in Sharon's stead fell far short of achieving that goal.
"Whenever we argued, he usually called two weeks later and said I was right," Dan said. "He didn't have a chance to call on Kadima."
Since the war in Lebanon, Dan has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and a defender of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. Dan said that had Sharon still been prime minister, the war would never have happened, a charge backed up by Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah's declarations that the war was intended to test "Israel's weak leadership."
"If [Sharon was prime minister and] they would have kidnapped the soldiers, we would have started the war at the Litani River and Nasrallah would not have lived," Dan said.
Dan said there were many incidents in the book that he shared for the first time, including Sharon's joy when he learned of the successful assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Dan's advice to Sharon to make his controversial pilgrimage to the Temple Mount in 2000, an alternative version to the start of the Six Day War and his accounts of Sharon's personal tragedies.
One such account revealed in the book is that Sharon considered quitting politics when his wife Lily was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2000, a year before he became prime minister.
"I shared information that nobody saw before," Dan said. "He trusted me all the time and that is an important thing, but there were things that were out of bounds to write and it went without saying. I didn't write things that might be misinterpreted. I thought about what he would have wanted. He knew there were things he told me that would go with me to the grave."
Dan had what will end up being his final conversation with Sharon two days before he suffered his second stroke. The two agreed to meet in the near future. But the next time they were together was at Sharon's hospital bed.
From that moment, Dan began a race against time to write the book while his friend Sharon is still alive. Flicking his hand, he said that writing about Sharon came easy.
"I have lost a friend; but for the nation, it's a tragedy," Dan said. "That's why it's so sad for me. That's why I felt I had to write. He has been so demonized for so long that I decided to salute him in my book. He never got credit for so many things. People will read the book and see him differently. That's all I want."
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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