For three or four of his transgressions, it is hard to reverse one’s view of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: For the blood that was shed in vain in a pointless war in Lebanon, and demonstrations of vengeance and recompense; for an ascent to the Temple Mount in September 2000 that set the country ablaze, triggering the second intifada; and for the corruption. He didn’t invent it, he merely perfected it as the art of the possible: I’m corrupt because I am. Who would dream of muzzling Sharon at work? He will rest in peace on a bed of aborted investigations.
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They say he was an impeccable soldier. If only we could say he was an impeccable man.
The West Bank settlements have many godparents, but Ariel Sharon was the first and foremost. These fungi that have poisoned the wells of democracy and fields of Zionism flourished on his watch.
Our paths crossed three times. In 1976, when he was establishing the political party Shlomtzion, he asked me to be number two on the list. Our conversation was odd. Very odd. “I want what’s best for the country,” he said, “and you want what’s best for the country. So what’s the difference between us? We can and must run for office together.” So much for domestic matters. On foreign affairs, he continued lecturing, “In any case, there’s no one to talk to and nothing to talk about any time soon. It’s a pity to waste our time on arguments that go nowhere.” His original, farsighted view of politics took me by such surprise that I remained speechless. I still am.
Still earlier, in the summer of 1969, he entreated the almighty Pinhas Sapir (then a Minister Without Portfolio) to tour the West Bank. Until then – two years after the Six-Day War – Sapir had refused to cross the Green Line. “Now,” he sighed deeply, “I don’t have a choice. He won’t leave me alone. But I won’t go without you. I need a witness to this rendezvous.” So I joined the outing: The major general and his driver, the government minister and his young friend, the four of us on a journey to acquaint ourselves with the land of our ancestors. Our host’s hopes went unfulfilled. His guest did not fall in love with Nablus and its suburbs.
At the end of the road trip, while still in the car, Sharon turned to look at us in the backseat. “You know, Abba Eban, your foreign minister, is an American spy. When you have the chance, check out how many binoculars he has at home, and ask yourselves why.”
Sapir looked shell-shocked. He jabbed his elbow in my ribs and muttered: “What’s he saying? What’s he saying?” “Exactly what you think,” I translated. When we finally got home, on the verge of collapse, I wasn’t sure what scared Sapir more: the occupied territories or Sharon himself.
Whatever one doesn’t understand sooner, one eventually understands later. Alas, sometimes it’s too late. In the middle of his tenure as prime minister, Sharon changed. I went out of my way to provoke him in order to figure out what was really going on inside of him, but I failed. He was invariably soft-spoken, and at times even managed to soothe my rage. Suddenly, he got it: The Gaza Strip was a disaster that could only hurt us as its caretaker, as the occupation had – until his intervention – no end in sight. The Palestinians, too, wanted to be a free nation in their land, and he wouldn’t get far, not even close, with the maniacs in his Likud Party. Had he not fallen into a coma in January 2006, he may have been remembered as the liberator of Palestine.
On the basis of a then recently enacted law, he, as prime minister, and I, as head of the opposition, were the first to have monthly meetings. At one such meeting, he asked me, “Yossi, what do you say? How about we break the law?” I immediately responded, “Sure, why not? Sounds good to me.” “So let’s meet once a week,” he proposed. Arik’s sense of humor wasn’t half bad. He also knew when to flatter.
We did end up meeting more frequently. Not a single word was ever leaked. We were able to converse freely, in total secrecy. His discretion came with an added bonus: it let us gossip. Arik loved gossip, and I can’t say I hated it either.
That’s how I found out what he really thought of his many eulogizers. He didn’t think much, it turned out, and we finally discovered that we had something in common: Each of those meetings would end with exchanges of family news. He was proud of his children and grandchildren, and I was happy with my own – something else we shared. In all, the meetings were interesting: sometimes amusing, sometimes significant, though not earth-shattering.
As for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: I have yet to exchange a single word with him.