I had the rare opportunity to meet with Prime Minster Ariel Sharon for roughly 45 minutes in 2005, in the company of South Africa’s then-opposition leader, Tony Leon, for whom I worked at the time as a speechwriter. It was a wintry January day in Jerusalem, and Sharon greeted us warmly, though he was nursing a cold and had only slept two hours the night before, having just reshuffled his cabinet after a fateful split in his ruling party.
The Sharon government had decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, and would carry out that decision in August that year. He described to us, painfully, the sacrifices he anticipated making–the mothers and children that would be loaded onto buses, the tears that would be shed, the bitterness. He foresaw it all–he had seen it before, when he oversaw the evacuation of the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai desert in 1982.
Still, he had decided that Israel would be safer without Gaza. The cost of defending the settlements there–in financial terms, and in terms of national morale and international standing–was simply too high. He wished to convey to us, however, that this was not a decision he was taking lightly. He felt he was doing the right thing for the security of the nation–and for the safety of the Jewish people worldwide, for whom he felt responsible.
That love for fellow Jews was one of two themes that he stressed during the conversation. He took interest, towards the end, in how I had learned Hebrew–at a Jewish school and then a public high school in Skokie, IL. He also quizzed Tony about the welfare of the Jews of South Africa–though he dismissed outright any role for the South African government in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians: he saw it as too anti-Israel.
The other theme he stressed was his hatred–and that was the right word–for the late Palestinian Authority chairman, Yasser Arafat, who had died a few months before. A “murderer,” Sharon said, more than once. He looked forward to working with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, he said, because he was not a murderer–though that might make it harder for Abbas to maintain control of the Palestinian people, Sharon added wryly.
Less than a year later, Sharon had been permanently incapacitated by a massive stroke. The disengagement had been carried out, and he had formed a new party, Kadima (“Forward”), to contest Israel’s next elections. History has not yet delivered its verdict on that fateful period: Israel suffered two wars, but its case for retaining large portions of the West Bank was undoubtedly strengthened by Sharon’s move (and the Palestinians’ response).
Regardless, it was clear to me that Sharon was doing what he thought was in the best interest of his people. He was a soldier–and a tough one, whose enduring contribution to military tactics is the use of bulldozers in urban counter-terror operations. Yet he was also a pragmatist, who was willing to change tactics and risk the political consequences–he had campaigned against withdrawal from Gaza in his previous election–to preserve his goals.
Sharon was also a man beloved by his family and loyal to his friends. I learned much from him in those 45 minutes–not just the factors that drove his decision to leave Gaza, but also that in politics, character counts more than anything. It is the one enduring quality, the one feature that divides the great from the good, the only real basis for judging politicians during and after their lives. Sharon’s ideas changed: his character endured.