I was privileged to know, appreciate, and befriend Ariel Sharon for many years, both before and during the years he served as Israel’s 11th prime minister.
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We did not always agree, but we enjoyed discussing and arguing, always with a deep sense of respect. He became, through the years, a dear friend. In today’s parlance, we were on each other’s “like list.” We frequently spoke on the phone. Whenever I visited Israel, or he visited the United States, we would make time to see each other.
As I look back on our relationship, four memorable encounters stand out.
On a visit to Israel many years ago, he said to me, “Abe, as the head of the Anti-Defamation League, you fight the defamation of Jews. I am the most defamed Israeli political leader, so how are you fighting the defamation of the Jewish people if you don’t fight against my defamation? I am a persona non grata in the U.S.”
I said to him, “alright we’ll try to fix it. I’ll bring you to the U.S., but you have to make your own way to Washington.”
He was invited to give a lecture at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He filled the room with 2,000 people, and was a tremendous hit – and he then made his way to Washington, D.C. That was around the time that Jack Kemp, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, got in trouble with then Secretary of State Jim Baker. Sharon was Israel’s Minister of Housing, and a meeting was set up in Washington for the two of them, but Jim Baker forbade Kemp to meet with Sharon. Eventually, they did meet privately. This was a beginning effort to open up some doors to begin to understand Sharon.
Several years later, he came back to me and said that he still felt he was persona non grata in the U.S. “People do not want to talk, see or meet with me.”
I then called then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and Dennis Ross – and I reached out and said to each of them the same thing individually. “You don’t have to agree with or even like Ariel Sharon, but you need to know him. You need to listen to him, because Israel will never come to peace without Ariel Sharon. He will always be a very pivotal factor in bringing peace to the Middle East and in Israel. A visit was negotiated.
The administration offered three dates. Sharon came to the U.S. and met with the Administration. After the meeting, he called me up and said, “Can you find out how I did?”
I remember my father always said, “You don’t ask the doctor, you ask the patient.” The patient always knows how he felt. So I asked Sharon, “Arik, how did you feel?” He replied, “Well, I think I did great, but it would be nice to know what they think.” The next day, I had several conversations with the Administration officials and learned that he really did do well. Months later, Sharon became Foreign Minister, and the same people who didn’t want to see him initially called me to say ‘thank you,’ now we know him better and we have begun a relationship. Eventually, those relationships grew with respect.
The second encounter was in Moscow at the time of Glasnost and Perestroika, when the Soviet Union became modern-day Russia and it to open up to Jews, Israelis, etc. We were on a leadership mission to Russia, and someone said that Sharon would be speaking at a basketball auditorium in Moscow. We changed our plans and went to this basketball court where we found several hundred young Soviet Jews who came to hear him make a pitch for aliyah – for immigration to Israel. Sharon was at his super best; he was funny, charming, and dynamic! He had great charisma and was seductive in convincing many of the Soviet Jews to come to Israel. At that time he and I had an opportunity to sit and talk about the future of Russian-Israeli relations.
The third memorable encounter was after he became prime minister. Following his election in 2001, he called to say “Where are you? Why don’t you come here and spend some time with me?” So I did, and we sat in the office, and he said to me, “Do you have any advice?”
I said that, only one piece of advice. I told him, he needed to convince the American government that despite all of his efforts in working to open doors with Russia so that it could become a closer ally to the state of Israel, and at the end of the day Sharon would not really be serious about cozying up to the Russians at the expense of Israel’s special relationship with the United States.
He responded with something which, to this day, I have never forgotten. Arik’s answer was that he wasn’t serious about Russia, and that he valued Israel’s relationship with the U.S. above all others. “Abe, Israel’s safety and security depend on two pillars: Israel’s Defense Forces and the United States of America.” And then he chuckled and added, “And even the first depends on the second.”
This was probably the most significant realization that he brought to me which is how close and how important and dependent is the relationship between the United States and Israel. In all the years since he was prime minister, I am reminded of it, and I repeat it. It is very daunting to know the extent Israel’s security, role in the world, international relations, depends on this one most needed friend and ally.
The fourth encounter was, of all places, Auschwitz. We both participated in the March of the Living together. I spoke in Krakow to several thousand people and he spoke in Auschwitz. To see Sharon leading the delegation of Israeli military, Israeli citizens and young people -- to see him bring back the strength of Israel to that place of destruction -- to see him there and hear his voice and confidence in the future of the Jewish people remains indelible.
Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.