The shock felt by the public upon hearing that Ariel Sharon had suffered a "mild stroke" went beyond any personal regard for King Arik. There was more to it than realizing that even kings are made of flesh and blood. The sight of Sharon, who always projects such strength, determination and physical presence, being rushed to the hospital on a stretcher, did something to Israelis as they sat glued to their TV screens. Mainly, it proved how dependent we are on this man, who did an about-face and is now perceived as a leader who has broken the stalemate and delivered us from a state of perpetual warfare.
Like the crowd who gathers in the courtyard when a king or pope is on his deathbed, no one wanted to believe that this was the end. When Sharon, emerged from the hospital grinning from ear to ear - not stuttering, not limping, but cheerful and joking, no one can tell me this return from the dead didn't prompt a sigh of relief among a large part of the public.
The cynical adage about cemeteries being full of people who thought they were irreplaceabledoes not apply to Sharon. That's because he is one of those legendary leaders whose abilities and personal character bisected history at precisely that moment when their strength and leadership qualities were needed. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt rescuing America from the Great Depression, of Winston Churchill in World War II, of Charles de Gaulle pulling out of Algeria, of David Ben-Gurion establishing the State of Israel.
One of a handful of strong leaders who have found themselves at the historical crossroads of their people, Ariel Sharon has shown that only he can dismantle settlements. Only he has made Israelis see that the dream of a Greater Israel is dead, and if we have any desire to live, we must end the occupation and reach an agreement. At this point in time, Sharon has become the kind of leader who is irreplaceable.
It is no coincidence that the party he established, even in its fledgling state, has become a winner that will determine the policies of the next Sharon government. The sane public can be counted on to grant him the majority he needs to demarcate permanent borders, end our career as occupiers and pack up most of the remaining settlements.
The fact that this list has mobilized such massive support is further proof of how much the public believes in him and expects him to complete the job. Ehud Olmert and Kalman Gayer's remarks about Sharon's plans to divide Jerusalem were no figment of the imagination. Heads of state, starting with Bush, and even Mubarak in the Arab corner, equate an agreement with the Palestinians with Sharon. A day before the pathetic Netanyahu was elected chairman of his dwindling party of right-wing extremists, when Sharon was laid up by a tiny blood clot, people were scared, and rightly so. They were afraid that the only one could do anything was gone, and Israel had lost its great chance.
Sharon's new party has no hierarchy of leadership or established institutions yet, and everything depends on his good health. Hence the worry that if something happened to him, the party would go up in smoke.
But Sharon, as we noted, left the hospital wreathed in smiles. If it were up to his doctors, he would have stayed there a few more days. But leaders don't like a show of weakness or impotence. Sharon lost no time in phoning up political correspondents so they could hear with their own ears that he was fine.
Neither did he conceal that he was delighted by the outpouring of public warmth and sympathy. Something similar happened to Ernest Hemingway once, when he dropped out of sight for a while and the media, thinking he had been killed in an accident, rushed to eulogize and praise him to the heavens. When the acclaimed author returned from wherever it was he had been, he confessed that it was worth disappearing just to read all the wonderful things people said about him.
Now the media and the politicians have swooped down on the two medical recommendations of Sharon's doctors. He has been ordered to lose weight, which means he will have to give up kebab, halvah and luf, the pan-fried slices of army-ration meatloaf he so adores. And the other piece of advice is to "slow down," which conflicts with the hospital's PR statement that the doctors found nothing wrong with him.
These recommendations (he probably won't stick to them), will not stop Sharon from getting his new party into power, embarking on his plan to divide the country and bidding farewell to a dream that he himself pushed for and promoted. Old bulldozers may creak, but nothing will stand in this one's way.
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