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Rip Van Sharon

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

Seth Lipsky
January 06, 2010
Sharon in the Knesset on May 6, 1985, when he served served as industry and trade minister.(Nati Harnik/GPO via Getty Images)
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.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.