The phone rang and Ariel’s Sharon’s familiar voice was on the other end. In his booming cadence, imitated by a generation of Israeli Defense Force generals (and serving as fodder for thousands of Israeli impressionists), he told me about his upcoming plan.
I promised to run a setup piece on Israel Radio during the top-listening drive time hour, and also to arrange a follow-up, a live telephone interview with him by the show’s anchor. The plan he told me about would be a major scoop and vintage Arik, as everyone in Israel called him. It was bold, creative, politically astute, and potentially destructive.
Sharon always went big, even at the cost of flirting with disaster. When he did something – and throughout his career he always did something – it would become a tiebreaker.
We chatted a while. Longer, in fact, than I had ever managed to talk with him. About plans to end his stint as opposition leader and become prime minister. About the future of Judaism. About the future of Israel. About past events. About mutual acquaintances.
I kept the conversation going as long as possible because he was friendly and in a chatty mood, but mostly because I wanted to get him to say more than he had planned to about the issue at hand. He had been around too long to fall for that, though, so he stayed on message.
He knew that his plan of action would speak much louder than whatever words he could convey to a reporter: Once returning home from New York, he said, he would enter Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
How would going there be perceived by the Palestinians? “That’s not my concern. As a Jew, I have the right to visit Judaism’s holiest site.”
OK, I said, try to imagine yourself a news analyst, anticipating Palestinian reaction to you visiting al-Aqsa, Haram al Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site. “My role is not that of a news analyst. I’m a statesman and a politician. You can do whatever analysis you want.”
And on it went.
Two days later, Sharon entered the Temple Mount, surrounded by a tight security detail. There was a tense confrontation with angry stone-throwing Palestinian youths – and then the most deadly round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the founding of the state, known as the Second Intifada, began.
Palestinians contend that the now-momentous September 2000 Sharon visit to the site – where according to Muslim traditions Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven, and where King Solomon initially built the Temple that had become Judaism’s holiest site – launched the intifada.
That round of violence was marked by exploding buses and horrific scenes of suicide bombings, killing café-goers in Israel’s major cities. Most Israelis, after seeing supporting documents unearthed by IDF intelligence, now believe that Yasser Arafat had long before planned a wave of violence, and the Sharon visit merely gave him the excuse to launch it.
Either way, Sharon’s Temple Mount visit served as a tiebreaker. It ended years of peace negotiations with Arafat, which had started – much to Sharon’s chagrin – in Oslo in 1993. The talks, by then a vaunted peace process, were still lingering in 2000, but without much direction or hope of success. Soon after the launch of the Second Intifada, Sharon would become prime minister.
Sharon’s enemies in America and Israel – let alone in the Arab world – have always itched to tag him with the blame for the round of violence, often accusing him of war crimes. But, as they have learned before, reality is often more complex.
In the aftermath of the 1982 war in Lebanon, many accused Sharon of being solely responsible for the horrific massacre committed by Christian Lebanese militias in the Palestinian camps Sabra and Shatila. But in a famous court case, a New York jury found that a Time magazine cover story contending Sharon "encouraged" the massacre was false (although the jurors also found the magazine not guilty of libel, because the story lacked “malice.”)
Similarly, when Sharon, as prime minister, moved against the Second Intifada, entering West Bank Palestinian cities with all the IDF’s might, he was widely, and wildly, accused of using excessive force.
When in April 2002 a small IDF unit entered a camp near the West Bank city of Jenin, stories of a massacre – “on the scale of Sabra and Shatila,” one alarmed European diplomat told me, as he hastily convened the United Nations Security Council – reverberated around the world. It later turned out that a fierce battle between armed Palestinians and IDF soldiers took place, with casualties on both sides.
But a massacre it was not. Just as the much-maligned security barrier Sharon built at that time around the West Bank, to assure that violence never returns to Israel's cities, is no "apartheid wall."
Perhaps with an eye to such complexity, former Senator George Mitchell, in a report ordered by President Clinton on that period, determined that “the Sharon visit did not cause the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’.” Nevertheless, Mitchell also wrote that the visit was “poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen; indeed it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited.”
A few years later, however, Sharon was so revered by his former Israeli critics, including “those who urged the visit be prohibited,” that they advocated burying allegations of corruption against him – just to assure that he remain in office.
That is because of Sharon’s about-face.
After decades of pleading the settlers’ case in various government positions and in the opposition, he said that things are different when you are the country's leader. “Things you can see from here, you can't see from there,” he said, quoting a popular Israeli song. And then he ordered the Gaza evacuation.
I was in Gaza in that summer of 2005, when settlers were forced to leave homes they had built decades earlier with the encouragement of the government. Theirs were heartbreaking stories, but the evacuation was done efficiently, with the kind of military and political precision that only Sharon could master.
Not only did he remove every last soldier and settler from Gaza, but Sharon also instructed the army to evacuate two small settlements in the northern West Bank, signaling what’s next.
It made me remember touring West Bank settlements with Sharon years earlier, where he would point to a strategic point, vowing Israel will never leave it. And of course, when he was in the opposition, saying that “Gaza’s fate is the same as Tel Aviv’s.”
Critics of Sharon now fault him for leaving Gaza without consulting the new Palestinian leader at the time, Mahmoud Abbas. But after the years Israel had spent endlessly and fruitlessly negotiating with Palestinian leaders, Sharon must have concluded that, had he launched such a process, he would never be able to complete the Gaza evacuation.
So he did what Sharon always did. He planned a bold, creative, politically astute and potentially destructive move.
Just like he did as a youth in 1948, when Israel fought for its life. And in the early fifties when, as a unit commander, he chased Arab combatants into Jordan. And with a larger contingency when he moved to the center of Sinai in 1956. And in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he crossed the Suez canal deep into Egypt. And in 1982, when he entered Lebanon.
Sharon was rarely obedient and never predictable. Some of his military escapades were not pretty. But as the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said today, as Sharon's death was announced, “he was a hero to his people, first as a soldier and then as a statesman.”
Ban also urged Sharon’s successor to follow in his footsteps.
How many country leaders so often, and wrongfully, being accused of war crimes, get such words of praise from a UN Secretary Gereral?