Ariel Sharon: The Last Leader

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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first left us suddenly on the night of January 4, 2006. Now he has left us for all time: as a father, a grandfather, a family man, an individual, a comatose man in a vegetative state in the hospital. The massive vacuum he left behind him eight years ago has never really been filled, and it is doubtful that it will be filled in the foreseeable future.

That’s because he was the only politician who was able not just to foment revolutions and make dramatic decisions, of the kind that uproot mountains and change reality, but also to lead the majority of the public, which believed in him, relied on him, loved him and saw him as the father of the nation. The rare, Ben-Gurionesque combinations – the courage and vision necessary to make bold decisions, the capacity to decide as well as to lead – were what characterized Sharon, especially during his second term as prime minister between his election in 2003 and his second stroke in 2006.

Unfortunately, there are no other people among us like this man. Ehud Olmert was no less brave and was willing to forge a breakthrough on peace talks, but the people abandoned him after the Second Lebanon War. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can boast intellect and historical understanding, but given that he has not moved the peace process forward in five straight years in power as a leader with no rivals, it is very doubtful that he is ready, able or willing to make the decision to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, with all the substantial costs that would entail.

When Sharon quit the Likud party in November 2005 and founded Kadima, about half the Likud electorate and more than a third of Likud MKs made the jump along with him, leaving behind the party that had been their political home for decades. Like a true shepherd, an admired commander, a person who knew how to express gratitude, Sharon knew how to get people to follow him. Contrast this with Netanyahu; if the current prime minister were to form his own party, how many people would join him?

Sharon had his second stroke at the height of the election campaign for the 17th Knesset. All the polls had shown that he and his Kadima party could expect to win a whopping 40 seats. His departure from politics less than 90 days before Election Day turned the anticipated seismic shift of Israeli politics into a low- to mid-grade shiftlet. Most of the voters who had followed Arik to Kadima returned to a Bibi-led Likud, or found refuge in what turned out to be the big winner of that election season, the short-lived Pensioners party. Likud was saved from annihilation, just barely winning 12 seats when facing off against Olmert at Kadima’s helm. If Sharon had still been the party chairman, Likud might have won just half those seats. Most of its survivors in the Knesset would likely have rushed to join forces with Sharon’s Kadima or with other parties, and that would have been the forlorn end of the “fighting movement.”

The relationship between Sharon and Netanyahu could provide enough material for scores of books and plays. The abhorrence was mutual, the suspicion was mutual and even the admiration was mutual. Sure, Sharon heaped loathing and scorn on Netanyahu; in 2002, when he wanted to pass along a particular message to his predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Barak, and to Netanyahu, separately, he told one of his aides: “I’ll talk to Barak, and you talk to that thing.” But Sharon was also jealous: of Netanyahu’s elegance, of his agility, of his understanding of the ways of the wider world, of his eloquence, of his perfect American English. Even when Sharon was king of the world, he never forgot that Netanyahu was the primary threat he faced, both within Likud and outside it.

Sharon was a great cynic. The combination of his political pragmatism and his cynicism prompted him to decide one morning to evacuate and destroy all the settlements of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip and four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank. A year before, he had refused to accede to the request of Amram Mitzna, the Labor Party chairman at the time, to announce that he would be willing to evacuate even one settlement, Netzarim, from the heart of the Gaza Strip. “The fate of Netzarim is the fate of Tel Aviv,” Sharon famously replied.

Speaking of Sharon’s fantastic ability to zigzag ideologically, observers have noted that where you stand depends on where you sit. But that’s an insult to the intelligence. Before he was elected prime minister Sharon was a senior minister for many years, including in the foreign affairs and defense ministries and as a member of the inner cabinet. What exactly was it that he didn’t know beforehand? How did he go from calling on the settlers to take over every hilltop, the better to create facts on the ground, to destroying settlements? The answer is simple: Until he was at the very top, he was not willing to allow other prime ministers, be it Shimon Peres or Netanyahu, to take significant action when it came to Israeli-Arab affairs. He trusted no one but himself.

When Sharon was elected, he knew full well what he was getting into. He knew the nature of the hell called the premiership of Israel. The day before the 2001 election, his friend Gideon Sa’ar called on him, along with campaign manager Reuven Adler and pollster Kalman Geyer. They put the last poll on his desk, hot off the press, predicting that he would beat Ehud Barak by 20 percentage points (it actually ended up being 24). Sharon took the news calmly. That’s it, it’s over, they told him, tomorrow at this time you’ll be prime minister.”

Were they sure, he wanted to know. Yes, he was told, they had checked everything. In that case, Sharon told them, he had a question: What do you think will happen if we win tomorrow and then I come to the Likud celebration, get on stage and tell everyone that I appreciate everything, but I just wanted to test my strength; I’m going back to the farm and have no intention of becoming prime minister. What do you think? Will it make the headlines?

Sharon’s cynicism was his major weapon, which he used against partners as well as rivals. He has been known to stick some of his ministers with insulting nicknames. There was one he called a fattened calf. He said about another one that “When I hear him, I don’t know how we beat the Arabs every time.”

At one meeting of Likud MKs, he listened to Haim Katz complain about the budget cuts imposed by Netanyahu, who was finance minister at the time. “You’re killing the people,” said Katz. Sharon leaned over to Sa’ar, the faction chief at the time, and said: “Of all the people here, I’m the only one who has killed people.” Sa’ar was just barely managing to keep a poker face when Sharon leaned over a second time: “And I mean with my hands, right?” he added.

Sharon possessed the wisdom of the farmer as well as incredible cunning. A very high-ranking police official who was well-versed in the Greek island affair, a corruption scandal involving the Sharon family that was closed by then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, once told acquaintances about questioning the prime minister: “Ehud Olmert is considered a skilled interrogation subject, smart, a sophisticated fox. You’d be surprised – he was nothing compared to Sharon.”

The police official said police had been preparing for the interrogation for two weeks. “We had done all the simulations, gone over all the scenarios, investigated and gone through every single corner. I played Sharon. We were familiar with every last bit of testimony and witness statements in the material. We had never come more prepared to an interrogation. And when we sat across from him, we simply could not crack him. We came at him from the right, from the left, from the top and from the bottom. We tried everything on him and he was ready for all of it. He waited for us, he knew what we would ask, how we would ask. He was, without a doubt, the toughest interrogation subject I ever met.”

Ariel Sharon won’t be getting the funeral he deserved had he died as a sitting prime minister, attended by dozens of presidents, prime ministers and other leaders the world over, many of whom admired him and sought him out when he attended the UN General Assembly a few months before his collapse. But even eight years later, Sharon’s death will certainly make many people feel a sense of having missed out on something, as they wonder what could have been here, if only.

Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, 1992Credit: Miki Kratsman

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