Learning to Love Ariel Sharon

The former PM had an astonishing ability to connect with people who loathed him and with whom he had quarreled - not least, George W. Bush.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

As Ariel Sharon hovers at the edge of death, one of the things I think of is his encounter with a journalist who - at least most of the time - loathed him. This was one of the hardest-headed analysts, David Twersky, a Labor Zionist who was then working at The Forward.

Some of the leftists at the paper left the building before Sharon showed up, rather than risk having to shake the general’s hand. Twersky, though, did his duty, and joined the palaver with Sharon around a table in my office. Then, it being Hanukkah, we repaired to a side room to light candles.

Twersky found himself transfixed by Sharon’s warmth and humor, particularly, he later wrote, when the ex-general insisted, before lighting candles, on donning his own personal kippa and then tucked into the latkes. “While I remained critical of many of his policies until his recent turn to seize the latent center of Israeli political life, the rancor was gone,” Twersky wrote, years later, when Sharon was felled by a stroke. “I am beside myself with sadness.”

Sharon’s ability to connect with people with whom he differed was one of the astonishing features of his outsized personality. I saw it often, including when I first met him in 1982. He’d come to America to alert the Reagan administration to his intention that he would invade Lebanon the next time a terrorist incident could be traced to the camps there.

In a visit to the Wall Street Journal, where I was then working, Sharon announced he was prepared to invade Lebanon to dismantle the entire terrorist infrastructure there. No mention of any limits. Separately he was asked about worries aired in Jordan that Iran might attack the Arab states. Britain’s success in the Falklands, it was noted, made it seem as though the 1,300 kilometers from Tehran to Amman wasn’t such a large distance.

What a volcano of cheerful derision erupted from Sharon. “You know, we have been trying to convince [people] for years that a nation, Israel, cannot live where 66 percent of the population is on a strip of land which is between six and 17 miles wide and about 60 miles long. … Not 1,300 kilometers … Less than 70. Suddenly, when it comes to others 1,300 kilometers disappear. Just like that. They just disappear.”

So began a long friendship. Once, when I was based in Brussels and President Reagan surprised the world by okaying American talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Sharon sent word that he wanted to meet in London. We sat down in his suite at the Dorchester, where I asked but one question, which was something like, “Mind if I use a recorder?”

He proceeded to talk for an incredible two hours in an answer whose boiled-down version filled an entire page of the Wall Street Journal/Europe and ran under the headline “The Soliloquy of Ariel Sharon.” The interview included a warning that Israel in our time would not play the part of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

The last time I saw Sharon in Israel was in 1989, when he, his friend Uri Dan, and I went for a picnic in the Samarian hills. We came to an outcropping, from which Sharon gestured into the distance and declared that the next trouble was going to come from Iraq. He was worried about the order of battle and Saddam’s build-up of armor. The Gulf War would erupt in Kuwait little more than a year later.

Not that Sharon was without myopia, which I glimpsed in November of 2000, when he was the guest at the first editorial dinner of the New York Sun. The paper hadn’t begun publishing yet, he wasn’t premier yet, and the war in Iraq was still several years off. The Sun’s managing editor, Ira Stoll, asked why Israel wasn’t backing the Iraqi National Congress, for which the U.S. Congress had long since authorized seed money with an eye on a new democracy.

Sharon was uninterested, no matter how gamely Stoll pressed. It may be that he didn’t want to risk getting the exiled Iraqi democrats into trouble. It may be that he thought the coming expedition was chimerical. But years before the neo-Conservatives picked up the theme, Sharon gave a speech at Oxford insisting that real peace could be made only between democracies.

It’s typical of Sharon that he once gave his tour of Samaria to a young governor from Texas named George W. Bush, scion of a political dynasty with mixed relations with Israel. No doubt that connection helped Sharon get past a spat in 2001, when the new premier irked the new president by repeating that Israel would not play the role once given the Czechs.

Bush took his umbrage public, but Sharon held his ground. They went on to a famous partnership. It’s hard to think of a period when Washington-Jerusalem relations functioned better than in the years when the two of them were in power. It may be that President Bush was surprised at how much he liked Sharon, just like David Twersky.

The writer is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000. His books include “The Citizen’s Constitution: An Annotated Guide,” and most recently “The Rise of Abraham Cahan.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, second left, in a jeep, October 1973.Credit: Reuters
Former Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon.Credit: Reuters

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