On a Personal Note

Olmert will have to convince the Israeli public that he, too, possesses that strength of character Sharon had.

The startling disappearance of Sharon from the headlines, alive but comatose, is the last thing I would have expected to happen to him. In the course of my journalistic work, I have met all Israel's prime ministers, including when they were on their way up, as generals, party leaders and government ministers.

Some were natural heirs. Some reached the top when members of the older generation retired, a prime minister died without warning or elections ended in a dramatic reversal. Sharon had been declared unfit to be chief of staff and was relieved of his duties as defense minister. As a right-winger, he outflanked Shamir and Arens. His makeover into a prime minister capable of uprooting settlements and an internationally acclaimed man of peace was nothing short of extraordinary.

My relationship with Sharon the politician has gone through ups and downs. There have also been some bizarre moments. Arik and Lily Sharon kept a careful accounting of whom they were mad at and whom they forgave. They were mad at me for two years straight after my criticism of the Lebanon War. We would meet from time to time in the dining room of a certain Tel Aviv hotel. Whenever they left, they made a point of walking by me to show that they were not answering my "good morning." But as a perfectly synchronized couple, their policy changed one fine day, when they went back to smiling and wishing me good morning. Why? Only they know.

Sharon had a sharp tongue, as I recall. He compared Yitzhak Shamir to Chance Gardiner, the stammering gardener in the book and film "Being There." "You know why Shamir will never make me foreign minister?" he once asked me. "Because he knows I'm the type who can give up the territories." But the dig was followed by a compliment: "Shamir really is the last visionary of a Greater Land of Israel."

Sharon had two voices: a tough, no-nonsense voice for speeches and broadcast interviews, and a calm, quiet voice for turning on his incredible charm in private conversation. In these private talks, he would pull out a little yellow notepad and jot things down as the other person spoke. To this day I don't know if it was a way of playing up to people or for real.

Dinner at the ranch was VIP treatment deluxe. On the eve of his appointment as defense minister in 1981, I got an invitation. As we talked, I complained about one of Sharon's chief aides, who used to call in officers and journalists, and speak to them threateningly. Sharon smiled and replied, without batting an eyelash, that person was not going to be his top advisor anyway. The next day, he read in Haaretz that he had been sacked.

After several rounds of not speaking and making up, followed by the Oslo Accords, the Rabin assassination, Bibi's victory and Bibi's defeat (after which Bibi absconded and left the Likud lying in a pool of blood), Sharon found himself on the prime-ministerial track. Since then, our relationship has been fine. Around the end of 2000, we started meeting every once in a while at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv. A phone call to his loyal secretary, Merav Levy, and that was that.

There was nothing Sharon did that wasn't thought out. His ideological transformation began with his "peace and security" election campaign. By January 2001, he was the embodiment of the thinking man and a champion of peace. At first it may have been a ploy to attract voters from the center of the political map, but in his speech to the Knesset after putting together a coalition, he called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and reach a solution through dialogue.

No less important than what was in that speech is what was not in it. He did not reject the establishment of a Palestinian state and he did not say a word about expanding the settlements or the dream of building a Greater Israel. Bibi, busy making money in America, predicted that the Sharon administration wouldn't last three months. Sharon didn't respond, but his eyes smiled. What began, perhaps, as a typical Sharon maneuver, turned into a metamorphosis. Four years passed before he unveiled his disengagement plan to Haaretz on February 2, 2004.

Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, was the trumpeter at the head of the disengagement parade. He beat Sharon to it by a long shot. But Sharon, a clever politician, created a halo around himself and made people believe that only he could do what had to be done. Without faith in this power of his, which he demonstrated by pulling out of Gaza in six days, Sharon wouldn't have been able to establish Kadima - the party meant to lead Israel toward a permanent agreement - with a mere wave of his hand.

But it is not enough for the man who is now replacing Sharon, presumably his heir apparent, to be voted his successor. He will have to convince the Israeli public that he, too, possesses that strength of character that makes him the "only one who can do it."