Sharon the man

A month after his death, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who served as cabinet secretary in Ariel Sharon’s government, helps offer insights into often overlooked aspects of the late prime minister’s character.

Ariel Sharon (photo credit: GPO)
Ariel Sharon
(photo credit: GPO)
In February 2001, Ariel Sharon prevailed over Ehud Barak and was elected prime minister of Israel. Sharon won 62 percent of the vote and crushed Barak by an unprecedented margin. A man who just a few years earlier clearly had no chance of winning any spot had been elected prime minister. In the weeks leading up to the elections, Sharon set his goals and appointed three talented individuals to help him build a “100-day plan”: Tzachi Hanegbi, Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Lion.
The common denominator of the three was clear: They all identified with Binyamin Netanyahu. Hanegbi was one of Netanyahu’s closest allies; Lion was a former director general in the Prime Minister’s Office; and Sa’ar was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. No other politician would have formed such a team for such a sensitive mission, but Sharon had the necessary confidence. It’s not that he wasn’t suspicious – being suspicious was second nature to him – but he decided who he could trust and how to grant them leeway to act as they thought proper.
After winning the election, he put together a coalition negotiations team headed by Uri Shani which included Sa’ar. Sharon offered some general guidelines for the negotiations: They would need to form a unity government with the Labor Party; they could offer Labor the two most senior ministries, Foreign Affairs and Defense; they should reserve Finance, Justice, Education, Homeland Security and Communications for the Likud.
“He knew exactly what he wanted,” recalls Sa’ar. “He called this term ‘the war on terror’ and ‘the eradication of the intifada.’ But he knew that he needed a unity government in order to gain legitimacy and that’s why he was willing to offer these important ministries to Labor.”
When Labor leaders heard Sharon’s generous offer, their eyes lit up. Here Barak had just been defeated, and yet they weren’t being kicked out of power. The Foreign and Defense ministries were key positions. It was clear that there was a foundation on which they could make a deal.
There was just one little obstacle he still needed to overcome: to formulate political guidelines. Just a few months previously, Sharon had riled many when he visited the Temple Mount and he seemed light years away from Labor, even though in Taba he had recently offered Yasser Arafat to split Jerusalem. And so Sharon enlisted Sa’ar for this difficult task. Sa’ar was meant to sit down with Labor’s Haim Ramon and reach an agreement everyone could live with.
“It seemed like an impossible mission,” Sa’ar says.
Back then, he was still a young, excited ideologue. He knew that Ramon was a staunch peacenik and would be a hard nut to crack.
They tried to make the wording as vague as possible since both Sa’ar and Ramon fought over each word, struggling for hours until they were both on the brink of exhaustion.
“I called Uri Shani,” Sa’ar recalls. “I told him I had reached an agreement with Haim and that I wanted him to approve it. Shani told me, ‘I approve. Whatever the agreement says is fine – sign it.’ I was shocked. He didn’t even read it. I asked him, ‘Don’t you even want to see what issues are involved since the entire coalition is going to be based on this agreement?’ ‘Don’t worry about it, he said. Just sign it.’ I told him I’d like to speak with Arik. ‘Be my guest,’ Uri told me.’ Call him – he’s at his ranch.’” Sa’ar was quite agitated when he called the prime minister-elect. “I wasn’t ready to take full responsibility for the signing of the agreement all by myself,” Sa’ar says. Sharon was apparently in the middle of his meal.
And when he got interrupted while he was eating, he was quite impatient.
“Hello Arik,” Sa’ar said tremulously. “I have good news. Ramon and I reached an agreement. I have a draft of the political guidelines.
“‘Wonderful,’ Sharon responded. ‘So sign it.’” Then there was silence. Sa’ar was again stunned.
“Wouldn’t you like to take a look at it first?” he asked. “I can summarize the main points for you.”
Sharon cleared his throat. “Can you live with it?” he asked Sa’ar.
“Uh, yes,” Sa’ar stammered.
“If you can live with it, then I can live with it too,” Sharon concluded. “You’re the one running the show, so you get to make the decision.”
Thirteen years have passed since then. Sa’ar is now an experienced and cynical politician. He can look back now on that experience with a smile. “I’m absolutely positive that he never even read the guidelines he based his first government on,” Sa’ar says. WHY SHOULD he read it? Sharon had a different work style.
“Sharon knew exactly what kind of government he wanted and so he designed a coalition that would suit his goals. He planned every move strategically. During his first term, he had to deal with the intifada and so he decided to fight hard against terrorism. He knew that in order to implement his policies, he needed a unity government. And that’s why he was willing to pay the price of offering Labor important ministries,” Sa’ar says.
“Afterwards, when he formed his second government in 2003, Sharon had to deal with the serious economic crisis, and so he preferred forming a government with the Shinui Party instead of the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] parties. He knew this would make it easier to impose changes.... In the end, there was the disengagement. In 2004, he formed a pact with Labor so that he could pass the disengagement plan. He had three main goals that he wanted to reach over a five-year period. He made a plan and formed coalitions that would allow him to carry out his goals. He did not fuss over the small details – he appointed people he trusted to carry this out and he gave them their space to do their work.”
Sa’ar recalls how he practically fell out of his chair when he was offered the position of cabinet secretary for Sharon’s government. After all, he had been one of Bibi Netanyahu’s guys and Netanyahu had worked to undermine Sharon’s candidacy until the very last minute.
A day before the election, “when everyone was exhausted, I was summoned to [Likud headquarters] Metzudat Ze’ev. They asked me to prepare a victory speech for Arik to say to party activists the next day.”
Sa’ar wrote the speech, but didn’t show up at the gathering. “I was afraid he was going to pressure me into accepting his offer,” says Sa’ar, whose law career had just been taking off. In the end, Sa’ar agreed and his appointment was the first one announced after the election.
Regarding the office’s legendary secretary, Marit Danon, Sharon wasn’t sure what to do. His first instinct was to replace her. But Shani said to Sharon, “Running the country is like flying an airplane. Have you ever flown an airplane? No? I haven’t either. But she has.
She’s been here for years and we need her.”
So Sharon acquiesced. Danon, who had worked under five prime ministers, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, was apprehensive before her first meeting with Sharon. But the chemistry between them was immediate. Danon once told me, “He was exactly the opposite of what I thought he’d be like. He’s nothing like his image in the media. He’s an amazing person – sensitive, attentive and full of goodness.”
SO MUCH has been written about Sharon’s legacy, including his failures and the low points of his career (the Kibya incident in 1953 as commander of the Unit 101 anti-terror unit, the First Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in 1982, his visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000, and police investigations) as well as his prodigious achievements (the War of Independence, retaliatory attacks, the Six Day War, saving the country by crossing the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, the absorption of Soviet Jewry, eliminating terror in the Gaza Strip in the 1950s and the second intifada and improving Israeli relations with the US). Everyone can decide which events he or she associates with Sharon. The aim of this piece is to honor the memory of Sharon the man, not Sharon the politician or soldier.
Sharon loved to tell stories. In an instant, he would be back 20, 30 or even 50 years. He remembered the minutest details. He especially loved telling stories about battles. He could tell you first-hand stories from the War of Independence. He would talk about Shimon “Kacha” Kahaner, Har (nickname for Meir Har Etzion), Raful (Rafael Eitan) and Sopapo (Capt. Saadia Elkayam from Unit 101 who fell in the retaliatory attack in Gaza in 1955).
There is no hill, curve or path in Israel that Sharon didn’t know well. Every spot reminded him of some story.
And yes, he was an excellent storyteller.
When Sa’ar joined the Prime Minister’s Office, Sharon realized he had found a new audience. “Every time he would begin telling a story from the good ol’ days,” Sa’ar recalls, “Everyone quickly dispersed... But I stayed and listened. I drank in his stories as if I had just come from the desert. These stories were new and exciting for me. And he loved telling them over and over again.”
One of the most amusing stories Sharon loved to tell when he was in the mood, was when he went to Raful’s home in Tel Adashim to convince his father to let Raful return to the IDF.
Raful had been seriously wounded in the Battle of San Simon in Jerusalem in the War of Independence and had returned to live with his family to convalesce.
He continued serving as a reserves commander of the 890th paratroop battalion, Sharon’s battalion, but Sharon desperately wanted to bring his friend back to active service. When he asked Raful to come back, the latter replied: “If you can convince my father, I’d be happy to.”
Easy enough, Sharon thought. But it wasn’t. Apparently, everyone was scared of Raful’s father. Sharon told how he rode out to the moshav in the Jezreel Valley one night on his horse. He entered the Eitan family house and then everyone dispersed – including Raful himself.
Sharon found himself sitting alone with Raful’s father at the table with a big platter of “bulbusim” (cooked potatoes) in between the two of them. The story goes that Raful’s father picked up a pitchfork, stabbed a potato with it and ate the potato in a couple bites. When Sharon saw what he was up against, he realized he probably was not going to succeed in extracting Raful from his father’s clutches. When Sharon would tell this story, he had every single person in the room rolling on the floor – even those who were hearing the story for the umpteenth time. And of course, as we know, Raful returned to the army – he became chief of staff.
SHARON LOVED life. He loved nature, the sea, and of course, food. Good food. He was born a farmer and died a farmer. If he had a choice between canned meat and gourmet food, he never hesitated to pick the former.
He always kept a few cans on hand at the office and he would ask to have it fried up for him. The smell was absolutely unbearable, but that’s what the prime minister loved to eat. He also loved sausage, falafel and lots of herring. When he became prime minister, he could no longer just go out to eat. He was not allowed to open the window of his armored car even a crack on the way to or from Sycamore Ranch.
This loss of freedom was hard on Sharon. He would question his people for hours about their experiences out in the free world. He began referring to himself as a “Prisoner of Zion.”
On trips overseas, when his entourage would go out in the evenings to a restaurant, he would often call them and demand to know details about everything they were eating and doing.
He encouraged them to have a great time, but was incredibly jealous. That’s why he like to spend as much time as he could on his ranch. This was the only place he could feel relatively free. He could walk around as he pleased, smell the earth, pet the sheep and cows and enjoy the feeling of freedom.
Sharon had a great sense of humor, including self-effacing humor. He used terms and referred to concepts from the olden days of Kfar Malal (where he was born), the pre-state struggles against the Arabs and the “Wild West of the Middle East.”
Sa’ar recalls how Sharon would send him off to reprimand a foreign ambassador for something, and would say with a twinkle in his eye: And don’t forget to bring the korvatch, okay? When Sa’ar asked around what a korvatch was, Shani, who had already investigated, said it was a type of whip guards had used in the 1930s and 1940s. It apparently had strips of rope attached to it whose ends and had been soaked and hardened in salt water.
In other words, a lashing from a korvatch was not a very pleasant experience.
SHARON COULD be cynical and cruel, but he also knew how to be generous and attentive. He was famous for his restraint following terror attacks, such as the one that killed more than 20 people, nearly all of them teenagers, at the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv in 2001.
Sharon coined the term “restraint is power” in Hebrew and showed restraint after the monstrous bombing.
He authorized Operation Defensive Shield only after the Park Hotel in Netanya Seder night bombing in 2002 in which some 30 people were killed. There was one simple reason for this restraint: If the IDF was only prepared to carry out a weak, unimpressive retaliatory attack, Sharon preferred not to respond at all. When he took office, he was extremely unhappy with the attitude in the IDF, including how the military was dealing with the intifada. He appointed himself brigade commander for a few months and met with soldiers from every level. Afterwards, he replaced a number of generals, switched some staff and positions, and refreshed their worldviews. In the end, when Sharon saw that the IDF was ready to launch Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli forces infiltrated refugee camps and eradicated terrorism.
Ultimately, years after he stood in front of the Likud Central Committee and bellowed out, “Who is for the elimination of terrorism?” as his people lowered the volume of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s microphone and increased the volume of Sharon’s, he did largely succeed in eliminating terrorism. He tried to shape the country’s borders, but didn’t have time to finish.
Eight years ago, he left us and fell into a partial coma.
He would mostly lie on the bed and sometimes sit in a chair, his eyes open for short amounts of time. Sometimes he would mutter some unintelligible sounds. A month ago, on January 11, 2014, he passed away. Ariel Sharon has returned to the soil he so loved, to the verdant Anemone Hill that overlooks his fields. He didn’t have enough time to shape the boundaries of our country, but even if we search high and low, I don’t think we’ll find many other leaders who have had such a great influence on the formation, experiences and future of the Jewish state.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.