Yossi Sarid, Rebel With a Cause

Sarid remained part of the antiestablishment, even while being in the establishment.

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Yossi Sarid poses for a photograph in 2010.
Yossi Sarid, photographed in 2010. Credit: Gali Eytan

In an interview for the documentary series “Lo Tishkot Haaretz” (“The Avoidable War”), about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Yossi Sarid – who died on Friday – described the moment when everything started to go wrong: the final days of moderate Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s term. Sarid was freezing in a windy New York dawn in the winter of 1968-69 when Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir stunned him with a piece of secret gossip. The two men – the minister and his close associate – met in an empty barbershop, run by a barber who knew no Hebrew. “Eshkol is about to die,” Sarid recounted, imitating Sapir’s thick voice and heavy accent. “He has testicular cancer.”

Before he had time to digest the news, Sarid was hit by another bolt: Golda Meir would be the next prime minister. Four years later, when Arnaud de Borchgrave of Newsweek asked Sarid to pass on a desperate message from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat – peace or war – a powerful, lethal frost emanated from Golda’s “No,” just like on that winter’s day in Manhattan.

Every eulogizer is ultimately fated to be eulogized in his turn. The story of Sapir getting his hair cut was typical of Sarid – the work of an artist, with Sarid in the picture. He’s certainly there, but not in the center: Part observer, part participant, listening a bit and influencing a bit – the best man rather than the groom.

The 1973 war elevated Sarid and his generation to the political stage. He remained there for three decades as an elected official, but refused to pay the price of rising to the highest heights, whose flip side is the price of descending to the depths.

Sarid was the first of the generation born in the 1940s to grow up into the awareness of the media and the public. Above them were two previous generations, the men and women of the 19th century (David Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Golda) and those of the second decade of the 20th century (Menachem Begin, Israel Galili, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon).

Sapir was Sarid’s patron and ideological partner, especially in his dovishness. Neither Sapir nor Dayan – the former afraid of ultimate responsibility, the latter bored by routine maintenance – wanted to become prime minister. After Dayan’s death, Sarid became his relative by marriage. Sapir died like Sarid, looking older than him but in reality six years younger.

Alongside the founding fathers were Sarid and his colleagues/rivals, the admonishing sons, who grumbled but didn’t actually rebel, who pointed out the danger of the sacred cows without disconnecting from their udders – antiestablishment from within the establishment. As they rose higher in political life, they encountered the dilemmas of power and values, compromises and utility, of whether to remain within a framework that had diluted its platform but could achieve something if it forged an alliance with others, or to separate from it in favor of a weak but consistent group. It was a cruel choice.

Sarid preferred purity to titles, the boutique to the supermarket. It’s true he didn’t hesitate to embark on a power struggle over control of the boutique, but had he sought only power, he would have remained in the Labor Party and not moved to Meretz, where he knew the similarity of opinions he shared with then-Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni while they stood shoulder to shoulder in separate parties would turn into ego clashes once he entered her home court – because both were the type that preferred to be the head of the fox rather than the tail of the lion, but certainly not the tail, or the throat, of the fox.

Sarid, however, was only part-vegetarian: one of his boasts was his participation in operational decisions as a member of the ministerial committee for security.

Ehud Olmert, another member of the same generation, was the negative of Sarid’s positive. Both were young devils. Sarid remained an imp; Olmert became noted for corruption. In the race they began together, Olmert was the victor but Sarid was the vindicated. For each had his own Shula – Aloni and Zaken.