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Rip Van Sharon

Considering the former prime minister, after he’s spent four years in a coma

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Sharon in the Knesset on May 6, 1985, when he served served as industry and trade minister. (Nati Harnik/GPO via Getty Images)

As 2010 begins, I find myself thinking of Ariel Sharon. There has been only a bit of discussion on the anniversary of the stroke that felled him four years ago Monday and left him in the coma in which he remains. Jeffrey Goldberg had a couple of posts on his blog, while Sharon’s defenders are suggesting that the current leadership isn’t up to Sharon’s stature. I’m in a less judgmental mood, ruminating on what it was about his character and personality—his leadership—that makes so many people, even those who disagreed with his move to the center as prime minister, miss him so much.

One feature, no doubt, was that Sharon was an includer, a welcoming figure. This didn’t comport easily with his image through much of his career as a hawk. But one could see it in various encounters, beginning with the way he and his wife, Lili, ran his breakfast table at his farm in the Negev desert, where an amazing array of local figures, including Arabs, national politicians, visiting dignitaries, journalists, artists, and intellectuals found themselves sitting down to a vast repast of eggs and cheeses and fish and fruits and pastries and wide-ranging, cheerful conversation that became a memorable event.

Sharon had no fear of meeting his critics in conversation. In the 1990s, he came by the offices of the Forward, which I then edited, in a season when the newspaper had so many figures who were hostile to him that they left the building to avoid having to greet him. But the journalists themselves stayed and ended up parsing the problems of the Middle East with Sharon for two hours, capping it off with the lighting of Hanukkah candles and the sharing of latkes. One of the journalists, David Twersky, found his view of Sharon changed forever.

Not that Twersky became a supporter, only that his view of Sharon was changed, improved. It must have happened tens of thousands of times during the active years of Sharon’s life. During the early months of the Clinton administration, Sharon was in New York and a Forward reporter and I went to see him at an office he was using in a midtown tower. We spent an hour or so with him, and as we were leaving, one of us asked him what he thought of the new president’s plan to permit gay soldiers to serve in the U.S. military.

I was curious on the point, because, after all, Sharon was, among other things, probably the greatest living field commander. The question brought a quizzical look to his face, and he turned to an aide and said, “What is our policy on gays in the military?” The aide shrugged to indicate that he didn’t know either. So the onetime defense minister of Israel turned back to his visitors and announced that he didn’t know, which I took to mean that he was not an excluder (a policy that was later formally codified in Israel).

Another time I saw this instinct was in the early 1980s, when I was nursing the notion that the right way to deal with the Palestinians who were registered with the United Nations as refugees would be to offer them American green cards. I put this idea to all sorts of people, from Yasser Arafat, who would have none of it, to a foreign minister in Beirut, who said he didn’t care where they went so long as it wasn’t Lebanon, to American Jewish officials, who thought it counterproductive, to American politicians, who were scandalized. But when I asked Sharon about it over breakfast at his farm, he looked at me and said, “Why can’t they stay here?”

On top of all this, Sharon understood the levers of government in a way that comes with experience. He was educated in law and of course had been a celebrated soldier. When he finally acceded as head of the government, he was one the most qualified premiers in the history of parliamentary democracy: the ministries he’d headed included agriculture, defense, industry and commerce, construction and housing, national infrastructure, and foreign affairs, and, while in uniform, he had held a major command (the southern).

The list, incidentally, excludes finance, and if Sharon had a weakness, this was it. His comprehension of political economy was not what one would call a model of supply-side, free-market thinking. The joke used to be that when asked about whether he was going to reform Israel’s system of state-owned industry, he would say something like, “Yes, we’re going to sell the big government-owned companies to private entrepreneurs.” And he would be asked, “What are you going to do with the money, general?” And he would reply: “We’re going to buy more efficient state-owned industries.” When he finally acceded as premier, however, he put in as finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had in that ministry what has been, at least so far, his finest hour.

It’s hard to to say what Sharon would do were he to awaken from his coma and survey the order of battle today. There is a camp, of which Jeffrey Goldberg is a member, that reckons his mistake in respect of Gaza was not in the withdrawing but in the unilateralism. My own sense is that the unilateralism of the maneuver was, in Sharon’s view, its premier virtue. How long he would have stood for the kind of violence that subsequently issued from Gaza, I have my doubts. My guess is that he would have gone back in sooner and stayed longer. Would he have already acted toward Iran, it’s impossible to say. But it wouldn’t surprise me if, privately, he would be telling newspapermen that, for all the threats coming out of Iran, the danger that concerned him most was from Egypt, with its military now trained and equipped by the United States. And he would have been working constantly to broaden his political connections, at home and abroad, over one jolly meal after another.

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I too found myself surprised by my own change in view toward Sharon as he became PM.

One minor correction: Sharon was never a “chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces,” although he was Minister of Defense.

I think the implied THREAT of Sharon being at the helm would have quelled a number of the current irritants that are out there.
To the Arabs, and especially to the Palestinians, he was vety much a known quantity, and they did not like his thinking.
Ehud Olmert, for better or for worse, was no Ariel Sharon…

David Star says:

Unlike you, and many of your readers, I voted for Ariel Sharon because as an Israeli/American (or American/Israeli) I examined the positions of all the candidates for Prime Minister with great care. (At that time we voted for PM separately from the Knesset.)
My choice was based upon his statements of principle when running for office.
Unlike the candidate for Labor, he stood up for the principles of Zionism, as the natural follower of Begin and Shamir.
When he decided to unilaterally destroy the Gush Katif communities his motives were highly questionable. at the time his sons were under constant attack for finanacial corruption and he for arrant nepotism by the Israeli left wing press along with their US counterparts. Immediately after his announcement of his volte-face he was “baptized” by the left as a Tzaddik and his every move was granted a bracha.
This man then grandiously announced that he would hold a referendum of the Likud membership on the issue. When his position was overwhelmingly trounced, instead of acting like an honorable leader and resigning, he vindictively set about to destroy Likud and punish the millions who had voted for him, and dared to disagree with his treachery.
When he set up his new “Kadima” party, many of the political hacks who feared for their parnnasa ran to join his group “Kadimah”, (properly translated into Yiddish as “Auswarfim”)
No, the real Israelis who remember why we are here, have no fond memories of the tyrant.

Ben Waxman says:

To David:

What surprised you about Sharon’s methodology? The bulldozer was the bulldozer. The way he acted in Lebanon and in setting all of those small settlements (breaking the norms, pushing the envelope to the edge, never telling the whole truth) is exactly what he did with Gush Qatif. He didn’t change a bit in his style.

The same people who admired Sharon for getting things done are the ones who are crying over Gush Qatif. When Israelis learn that following the rules and the norms is just as important as the result, then people like Sharon won’t be able to operate.


ADDRESS 56299 179TH ST

elaygee says:

For heaven’s sake, somebody pull the plug already.

Joseph Speak says:

Having spent much time in prayer leading up to Ariel Sharon’s election as Prime Mininster. I know God Himself placed Ariel Sharon in that Office. The very Words I prayed came Out of Ariel Sharon’s mouth during His acceptance speech. The very bold and strong Word,”THERE SHALL BE NO MORE LAND GIVEN FOR PEACE THAT IS NOT PEACE”! Though I am nothing, Ariel Sharon to me is likened to The Good Father. I miss Him, Though I never met Him, Except in the spirit of prayer. I hope He returns and awakens,God Bless Him Now where ever He is.


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Rip Van Sharon

Considering the former prime minister, after he’s spent four years in a coma

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