The first time I met Ariel Sharon he was already cast as the enemy. It was at a meeting of the Southern Command, somewhere in the Sinai Desert, during the Yom Kippur War. Sharon was the commander of the IDF’s 143rd Division, and I was serving in Avraham Adan’s 162nd. While they were repelling the Egyptians, the two generals were also at each other’s throats.
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I don’t recall what I was doing there – it certainly wasn’t to take part in any high-level consultations - but I was wandering around the guarded compound when I happened to stumble upon Sharon and some of his officers standing near an armored personnel carrier, eagerly devouring the kind of home-cooked meal that most of us hadn’t seen for many days.
“Why are you staring at us? Come and eat,” he called over suddenly, and I, of course, was stricken with fear. Not only was this the imposing Ariel Sharon, already sporting the white bandage on his forehead that would become his charismatic trademark for the 1973 war, but I also ran the risk of being spotted fraternizing with the enemy by someone from my own unit. Sharon saw me hesitating, winked at his followers and said “Come on. I won’t bite you."
I spent no more than ten minutes with them, wolfing down the exquisite dishes that Sharon’s chef had concocted. Sharon didn’t speak to me again, but his sardonic observations about some of Adan’s staff officers may have been meant for my ears. I remember his hearty chuckles, the jokes that had his followers doubled up in laughter and most of all, the admiration and adulation in their eyes, the likes of which I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since.
It was, I realized many years later, one of his secret weapons, one of the things, to paraphrase Sharon himself, that “you could see from here, but not from there.” Sharon could be cruel and callous to his enemies on the battlefield and to his rivals in politics, but he was chock-full of personal charm and possessed a wicked sense of humor with which he could beguile friends and foes alike. His soldiers on the battlefield and his lackeys in the political arena followed him blindly “through fire and water," but many of his peers, including his harshest critics, were no less captivated by his personal appeal and charm.
It was yet another facet of a leader who was not only “larger than life” – both physically and symbolically – but also a man of extremes and seemingly irreconcilable internal contradictions. He was the epitome of that dichotomic cliché “you either loved him or hated him," though many Israelis wavered from one sentiment to the other and often harbored both at the same time.
So it goes with his legacy, which defies definition. Sharon undoubtedly left deep imprints on Israel’s military, political and diplomatic history, but they are a divergent mix of the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. From the bloody reprisal raids that he led as a daring paratrooper in the 1950’s that sullied the IDF’s “purity of arms” but also resuscitated the army’s failing morale, to the disengagement from Gaza less than a decade ago that extricated Israel from the quagmire of occupation, only to see it replaced by the intransigent and fanatic Hamas – much through Sharon’s own fault, as David Landau shows in his new Knopf biography “Arik.”
And while many in the left and around the world warmly embraced Sharon in his latter years as a hardline right-winger who came to “see the light,” it is too early to tell whether history will view the withdrawal that Sharon undertook in Gaza as more significant than the one that he tried to forever obstruct with the settlements that he built in the West Bank. Or whether his handing over of Gaza to Palestinian rule could in any way dilute the streams of bilateral bad blood that Sharon left in his wake, from Kibiya to Qalqilya in the 1950’s to Sabra and Chatila in the 1982 Lebanon War. Or how his unbridled and vicious attacks on his good friend Yitzhak Rabin contributed to the atmosphere of incitement and venom that preceded the assassination, which Sharon, three weeks before Yigal Amir carried out his deed, described as a “Bolshevik invention” aimed at diverting attention away from the failings of the Oslo Accords.
He was a bold and brilliant military commander who lacked that profession’s most basic requirement, discipline. He was a master of grand offensive maneuvers but also a connoisseur of the deceptive stab in the back. He was a clever and cunning political strategist who engineered the establishment of the Likud in 1973 but then took it apart 30 years later when he established Kadima in 2005. He was true to no one but himself and played only by the rules that suited his whims, in issues of life and death as well as those of law and order.
In both his military and political life, Sharon knew both triumph and defeat, soaring to peaks only to come crashing down to start things all over. “Do me a favor, come talk to Sharon,” his loyal spokesman Raanan Gissin begged me late in 1999, a few months after Sharon had become leader of the opposition in the wake of Ehud Barak’s resounding victory over Binyamin Netanyahu. It was a strange request, because I wasn’t particularly close to Sharon and wasn’t charged with covering him for my newspaper, but I could hear a note of desperation in Gissin’s voice, so I went anyway.
Sharon’s office in the Knesset was eerily quiet and seemed almost abandoned against the backdrop of the hustle and bustle surrounding it. I spent more than an hour and a half with Sharon, who took out his maps, explained the strategic imperatives of never withdrawing from Judea and Samaria and tried to seem hopeful that things would yet turn his way. But he was clearly depressed, barely coherent, his gaze wandering around the room, his words struggling to maintain the thread of his thoughts.
“He’s too old. He’s finished,” I told a colleague later. “His career is over and he just doesn’t know it yet,” I added with supreme conviction and confidence. This was about a year before Sharon’s fateful trip to the Temple Mount, a year and a half before his election as prime minister in March 2001 and five years before his historic pivot and withdrawal from Gaza.
“If you didn’t want him as IDF chief of staff you’ll get him as defense minister,” his trusted adviser Uri Dan once said just as presciently as when he predicted that “if you didn’t want him as defense minister, you will get him as prime minister.” It was another of Sharon’s trademark traits: He was the ultimate “comeback kid” of Israeli history. So after spending the last eight years of his life in a coma, it was only today, when his death was announced, that it finally became clear that Sharon’s comeback days were over.