"Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait" by Uri Dan, Palgrave Macmillan, 320 pages, $18.45
On September 13, 1993, I stood beside Uri Dan on the White House lawn. As the director of Israel's Government Press Office under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, I was in charge of the Israeli journalists who had traveled there to witness the historic ceremony of reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. A question hovered in the air: Would the two old enemies, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, shake hands? The officials came out of the White House and walked toward the small, tense audience assembled on the lawn. And then Bill Clinton, with his trademark charm, turned the two men toward each other: an enthusiastic Arafat and a dour-faced Rabin who, gripped by a visceral sense of foreboding, wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else at that moment. Then, the inconceivable happened: They shook hands, and a roar of joy went up from the audience. Even cynical longtime journalists could not disguise their enthusiasm. Everyone joined the celebrations.
Everyone, that is, except Uri Dan. The veteran reporter, who died in December at age 71, stood beside me frowning and said to his colleagues in disgust: "What are you so happy about? Many funerals will come out of this wedding." We all looked at him with pity: Here was the professional spoilsport, unable to give credit for success to anyone except his master, Ariel Sharon.
Years passed and indeed, that wedding was followed by many funerals, many eulogies in both Hebrew and Arabic. Journalist Eitan Haber, Dan's colleague-rival, claims that it is wrong to say that the Oslo process failed, because Yitzhak Rabin's assassination shattered the Israeli-Palestinian trust on which the whole endeavor rested. I tend to agree with him, but when results alone are considered, then Dan, more pessimistic than any of the guests who cheered then on the White House lawn, was right.
Of course, it's easy for pessimists to be right in the Mideastern-Israeli realm of existence, where something terrible is always bound to happen. Dan's pessimism, however, was conditional: If his hero, Sharon, were given a chance to perform his historic duty, the people of Israel would be saved; if not, they would deserve whatever calamities they inflicted upon themselves.
Dan's attitude might be dismissed as idolatry or blind adoration until we recall that in 1982, when Sharon was removed from his position as defense minister following the Sabra and Chatila massacre, it was his advisor - Uri Dan - who, in an unforgettable television interview, said with a feverish look in his eyes: "Those who did not want Sharon as chief of staff got him back as defense minister, and those who did not want him as defense minister will get him back as prime minister." It seemed at the time a wild and unlikely fantasy, and Dan was roundly mocked for it; eventually, however, his prophecy was realized in full. Sharon the outcast became not only Israel's prime minister, but one of our most highly regarded leaders.
This is the story of a man whose life brought him into Sharon's intimate circle, from Sharon's early days as a paratrooper commander leading Israeli reprisal operations to his final days as prime minister. When Dan turned 70, Sharon wrote to him in a moving letter: "To me you were and always will be a hardworking and resourceful journalist, an author and an advisor, a fearless and impartial professional. But, more than anything, you are to me a true friend who has always been there, in the moments of joy and elation; in the harsh hours of personal pain and tragedy; in the days of joyous victory and in dark nights under crossfire ... or during the retaliation missions and in the other battlefields, too numerous to be described here."
Uri Dan was a military correspondent for the army magazine Bamahane, for the weekly Ha'olam Hazeh and for the daily Maariv. As a die-hard reporter, he belonged to a dying breed. He heard Mordechai Gur brief his paratroopers before one of the reprisal operations in 1950, demanding that every unit prove itself capable of carrying out any mission given to it, and that each of the soldiers has a firm resolution: to win. He took part in the famous 1956 parachuting mission at the Mitla Pass, whish spearheaded the Sinai campaign; he interviewed Ugandan leader Idi Amin immediately after the Entebbe Operation. But, mainly, he was by Sharon's side.
Dan vows in the book that he never used what Sharon revealed to him for his journalistic purposes. But Eitan Haber, who was for many years the military reporter for Yedioth Ahronoth, thinks otherwise. In an essay he published after Dan's death, Haber wrote that Dan's scoops in Maariv, a source of great uneasiness to the rival newspaper, were in fact leaked by Sharon, and that Haber himself only managed to create a "balance of terror" by finding his own sources within the Israel Defense Forces.
Haber and Dan did not speak to each other for years, and more recently even communicated through lawyers: Dan wrote in the newspaper Makor Rishon that Haber had made up a sentence in Moshe Dayan's famous eulogy over the grave of Nahal Oz settler Ro'i Rothberg (who was murdered by Arabs in 1956). Haber proved that the sentence existed in the original, and the paper issued an apology. Despite their personal Armageddon, Haber showed integrity when he told Makor Rishon editor Amnon Lord: "In any case, you should know that Uri Dan is the greatest military correspondent in Israel's history."
The title of Dan's book, which has recently come out in Hebrew (Yedioth Ahronoth, Hemed Books), may be "Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait," or "Sharon's secrets," but it does not reveal many intimacies or secrets. The deep abomination that Sharon felt toward Arafat was no secret; the new revelation Dan offers is that the Mossad made a failed attempt on the Palestinian leader's life during the first Lebanon War in 1982, a failure that caused Sharon to regard the espionage agency and its capabilities with coolness and suspicion. Dan claims that Sharon aspired to have Arafat killed, and that only his personal promise to George Bush prevented the death of the Palestinian president.
But not for long, it seems. Dan reveals a little and conceals much when he hints that Arafat's death was not caused by any illness. He himself suggested to Sharon that Arafat be captured and brought to trial in Jerusalem, like Eichmann, but Sharon reassured him that he was dealing with the problem in his own way. Then Arafat fell ill, was flown to Paris for treatment and died. Was Sharon involved? This is what Dan wrote then in Maariv that in the history books prime minister Ariel Sharon will be remembered as the man who eliminated Yasser Arafat without killing him. Let every reader figure it out for himself.
Speaking of George Bush, with whom Sharon developed a very close relationship, Uri Dan recalls that Sharon's delicacy made him reluctant to repeat what the president had told him when they discussed Osama bin Laden. Finally he relented. And here is what the leader of the Western world, valiant warrior in the battle of cultures, promised to do to bin Laden if he caught him: "I will screw him in the ass!"
In Sharon's letter to Dan, quoted above, the former prime minister also wrote that more than anything, he remembered who Dan was to him during those hours that preceded fateful decisions, in those special moments of the 'commander's loneliness.' Sharon ruminates on, saying that Dan was there, saying nothing. Just being there, and that was what mattered. Dan, it seems, did not always "say nothing," but rather dared to speak and often disagreed with his hero. In response he received a barrage of scolding and angry phone hang-ups, often followed by apologies.
In retrospect, Sharon would have done well to listen to the reservations of his friend and admirer. Dan, for example, thought that it was a serious mistake to have Sharon's son Omri enter politics and run for Knesset (in hindsight, he was so right). Before Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, Dan suggested that Sharon put the issue up for a referendum, to erase the memory of his defeat in the Likud's internal poll, but Sharon rejected the idea (an unfortunate decision). Dan also opposed the establishment of Kadima, which he described as a group of "opportunistic political Brutuses." Now, when Sharon's ghost party is plummeting toward a crash, it seems that his prophecy was true.
Dan also blames the members of the "ranch forum" - referring to Sharon's close aides, who met at the Sycamore Ranch - from preventing his access to the prime minister. It was not only that the boss was kept from receiving Dan's good council; in those critical moments when Sharon's health was visibly declining, no one was there during to block his path physically during his first hospitalization and to declare that he would not leave until he was completely well. However, Dan writes that Sharon's latter days as prime minister were profoundly different from most of his previous years of leadership. For most of his life, he was surrounded by men of action, officers and commanders, people who got things done. Toward the end, he was surrounded by lawyers with their own interests in mind. Dan wrote, adding: "Find the differences."
Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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