The former U.S. ambassador to Israel remembers the many sides of the man who epitomized his country.
Ariel Sharon is now buried in the land he loved, next to his beloved wife Lily, on a hilltop overlooking the verdant fields of Havat Ha-shikmim, the ranch he retreated to as often as possible each week for the peace and quiet that eluded him in public life. Having served as the American ambassador to Israel during almost all of Sharon’s tenure as prime minister, I had the privilege of being named to the U.S. delegation to his funeral, headed by Vice President Biden. It was a day for remembrance and, to some degree, closure for the millions of Israelis who mourned Sharon’s passing.
The most memorable remarks at the state ceremony at the Knesset came from Marit Danon, the senior secretary assigned to Sharon when he entered the prime ministry. Marit confessed that she had expected to dislike the man whose policies she had so abhorred. Instead, she came to love him for the qualities of humanity that she saw, but which were not visible to the outside. Sharon took in all the people around him, she said — his professional staff, those who washed the floors or fixed windows. Each individual was important to him. But it was his interaction with the bereaved families of terror victims she remembered most, those who entered Sharon’s office in prolonged grief and bewilderment over their loss, and yet who exited with a smile of not just consolation, but also a kind of vindication of their loss from a leader who understood and valued in life and in death those who served to defend the country.
The speeches by Israeli leaders, foreign dignitaries and others were remarkably consistent in their portrait of Sharon. The words “indomitable” and “decisive” and heroic” and “bulldozer” were heard time and again. Sharon’s military exploits were noted, not so much as memories of heroism or bravery, but as manifestations of the distinguishing traits of a man who understood as a teenager that his fate was tied to the security and well-being of his country. Moments of some controversy were introduced, paradoxically by those who had been his admirers and followers when he was building settlements, but who broke with him — wouldn’t even talk to him — when he implemented the disengagement from Gaza and the evacuation of the Gaza settlements and settlers. The most controversial elements of Sharon’s career, Sabra and Shatilla, and military tactics that enraged superiors and colleagues, were left for historians and analysts to ponder.
The Sharon I remember and dealt with daily, indeed far more than any other American during his years as Israel’s leader, was all of these things, and yet more. I experienced his anger, and I laughed with him at his humor. I saw the twinkle in his eye when, repeating his standard presentation on Israel’s security and political situation to the many delegations and visitors he received from the United States, he would glance over at me, as I was taking notes, as though to say, ‘You’ve heard this before, you can recite it from memory, but pay attention lest I add a nuance or two.’”
And, like Marit, I remember Sharon the human being, the gentleman, sitting in our sukkah or joining us for a Chanukah meal and asking whether he could stay a bit longer for, in his words, “he was having a good time.” I came to know that those words — a good time — were really directed at my wife Sheila, who prepared Sharon’s favorite foods, and who would receive a call from him on the day following a visit to our home, thanking her in particular for her kindness. That same kindness was extended to me when he paid a shiva call after my mother died, giving a great honor to a woman he had charmed on an earlier visit and who had been swept into the orbit of his charisma.
Arik Sharon’s life provided an enormous amount of material for historians and analysts to ponder. His legacy will undoubtedly be a mixed one, not unusual for a man of great appetites and great deeds, and perhaps inevitable for a man who was the Zelig character of the first 65 years of Israel’s existence — at the center of every war and most every important battle, in the frame of every picture about politics, famous for his deeds and misdeeds, decisive in building and equally decisive in tearing down.
There are some who believe that Sharon, following the Gaza disengagement, had more peace-related moves in mind. I share that view, but, like others, can only surmise it from the hints and nuances of Sharon’s thoughts and actions in those final months of 2005, before the stroke that felled him at the beginning of the new year. Whether Sharon was ready to withdraw from all, or even additional parts, of the West Bank, we’ll never know. But one thing was clear: just as Sharon had changed the face of Israel by removing settlements and settlers from Gaza, that process of disengagement had also changed Sharon.
Yehi zichro baruch. May the memory of a man who loved the Jewish people, was a proud Jew himself, was attached to the land of Israel, and whose life was the quintessential story of Israel’s first 65 years — may that man’s memory be for a blessing.
Daniel Kurtzer, professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, served as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005).
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