It was around 8 p.m. on one of the last days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when the phone rang in my room at the Tel Aviv Hilton. The caller was an Israeli Army major who introduced himself as an aide de camp to General Ariel Sharon. Would I like to interview the General, whose armored units had crossed the Suez Canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army on the western bank? I would. Good, said the major, I’ll pick you up at 4 a.m.
I was the Israel bureau chief for The New York Times at the time, and Sharon had a message he wanted to get across to the Israeli military command in Tel Aviv. They weren’t listening, so Sharon, whose death at 85 was announced over the weekend, was pulling a classic end run.
It was late morning when we arrived at the General’s command trailer on the bank of the Canal. I and a couple of other journalists were about to get the Gospel according to Arik, as he was universally known. But first, he played the perfect host, setting out tins of smoked oysters and grasses of brandy, and gossiping about some of the other commanders. He wore a bloodied bandage wrapped theatrically around his head, the result not of a bullet, but a tank turret that turned at the wrong moment. He was charming, animated, funny, irreverent, pleased with himself and his men, and crystal clear.
The gospel from Arik was simple: he had trapped the Egyptian Third Army, he should be allowed to finish them off. And take the town of Suez. Then his tanks could roll on to the gates of Cairo. The problem, he said, lay with the commanders back in Tel Aviv. They had told him to stand still. The government was worried about the Americans, who were negotiating a ceasefire at the United Nations. He didn’t use the word “wimps” when describing his superiors, but that was the message.
It was vintage Sharon. He didn’t win that argument, but he employed every maneuver he could think of. When the war was over, Sharon was one of the few Israeli commanders to emerge with his reputation enhanced.
Later, he accumulated political capital with the Israeli right as Agriculture Minister, building and expanding settlements in the occupied territories; and as a tough and uncompromising Defense Minister. His brutal and controversial prosecution of the 1982 war in Lebanon damaged his standing with some Israelis and enhanced it with others.
As Prime Minister in the early 2,000’s, he first shocked his right wing supporters by conceding the inevitability of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and then, famously withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2004, destroying the settlements he had originally authorized and pulling out altogether. In 2005, he fractured the Israeli right and formed a new, more centrist party, Kadima, dedicated to further territorial withdrawal.
Was this a great reversal, a Nixon-to-China moment? Had the man who spent his entire career punishing the Palestinians, gone soft? Not really. He had simply decided, as prime ministers before and after him, that Israel could only survive as a Jewish state if it disentangled itself from the Palestinians, by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if not. He was changing tactics, not his strategic objective.
Sharon was planning more disengagement from the occupied West Bank in 2006 when a mild stroke, followed by a massive one 17 days later, silenced his voice. To save his life, the doctors put him into a deep coma from which he never emerged.
His death brings the Sharon legacy back into the forefront of the Israeli national consciousness and confronts the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with an awkward dilemma. Bibi has publicly endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state, but done little to enable it. On the contrary, he is the master of the status-quo, with none of the decisiveness that was the Sharon brand, nor the flexibility that Yitzhak Rabin displayed at the end of his life.
Sharon’s passing brings the contrast into sharp relief.