The Changed Man

In May of 1998, a wealthy Israeli-born businessman called our offices and suggested I go to the Peninsula Hotel to interview his friend, Ariel Sharon.

I said no.

At the time, Sharon was 70. He was minister of infrastructure in the government of the Likud Party’s youthful new leader Benjamin Netanyahu. By all accounts the former general and war hero had been irreparably damaged by his past, then eclipsed by a younger generation. He was just another minister, and I had other appointments.

The businessman, Uri Harkham, wouldn’t relent.

“This is a real hero!” he said.

So I went. It was a Saturday morning. Sharon, a bull of a man in a dark blazer and open-collared shirt, was sitting alone at a round table in the sun-drenched dining room of the Beverly Hills hotel, sipping from a china coffee cup painted with delicate pink roses. Nearby stood a knot of Israeli security guards.

Harkham sat at another table, working over a self-storage-unit magnate for a contribution to Sharon’s political future.

The idea that Sharon had a chance of usurping the telegenic, popular Netanyahu and becoming a mainstream Israeli politician struck me as ludicrous.

Sharon welcomed me and insisted I order something. We spoke for the better part of an hour — the man was in no rush. I believed I was talking to a has-been, a military hero with a U-Haul of baggage, whose role in Israeli life was purely historical.

Now, as I look back on 5765, I think of that breakfast, because the Jewish year that was belonged to Ariel Sharon.

Today there is almost no way to overstate the impact of his policy to disengage from the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank.

The disengagement was swept from the front pages in part by the hurricanes and other news, but also due to its own success. Predictions of civil war proved to be hype, or wishful thinking. A nation changed course bravely and bloodlessly.

Nothing Sharon said to me that morning, nothing in his past, would have foreshadowed these events.

“This isn’t the stock market,” he admonished me when I asked why he refused to accede to a 13 percent pullout from the West Bank. “Every percent is meaningful.”

By that he meant it was important to hold on to every precious percent of land. And he derided the Americans for thinking they understood Israel’s security needs.

“They don’t even know what’s happening in the next state,” he said.

His supporters, Sharon said, knew he could be trusted not to give away the store — or even, apparently, a percent of the store. Everyone, even the Palestinians, he boasted, “knows exactly where I stand.”

Sharon’s past left little room for doubt.

As defense minister in the 1970s and ’80s, he spearheaded the development of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. He pushed Israel’s army into Lebanon.

That decision cost hundreds of Israeli lives, and led to his political exile after the Kahan Commission investigated Israel’s culpability for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

He reclaimed center stage in 1999, after Netanyahu’s election defeat, winning 62 percent of the vote. Netanyahu’s compromises with Clinton had weakened him on the right, and Sharon’s no-nonsense reputation reassured terrorized Israelis: You knew where he stood.

Then, suddenly, you didn’t.

The man who writer Amos Oz prophesied would “deepen the oppression, deepen the occupation,” made the boldest step yet to lessen both.

His religious and nationalist supporters accused him of duplicity, even treason. His enemies, even his supporters, predicted everything short of the apocalypse.

But Sharon held fast. Israel’s pragmatism has always been more dramatic than its heroism. Founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion compromised Israel’s very dimensions to establish the state. The late Yitzhak Rabin gave his life to take a risk for peace. Sharon has joined their ranks.

To this day, no one has offered a definitive explanation for his decision. Months before, he had dismissed the very idea. Some believe disengagement was Sharon’s last chance to enter history as a peacemaker, though there’s scant evidence such things matter to him. Some say his hand was forced by his good friend, President George W. Bush. Some say his interests have always been Israel’s strategic security, and relinquishing Gaza made strategic sense.

If the reasons are murky, the immediate outcome is clearer. The disengagement reengaged Israel on the international stage.

“There is a real change in the attitude of the world to the State of Israel, and we see it even in our relations with Arab neighbors,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said during a visit to Los Angeles last month.

Disengagement placed the onus for responsible government on the Palestinians. It lessened the human and economic costs of occupation. It strengthened Israel’s relationship with the United States — no small things.

Seven years ago, my breakfast with Sharon ended with me thinking the old man would never change. He did. I’d like to believe it happened as a result of a thoughtful stock-taking — a political and practical heshbon nefesh that resulted in a clear-eyed view of where the occupation of Gaza would lead Israel.

The change brought forth progress, which shook loose a debilitating status quo. It brought victory for new beginnings over old patterns, and presented Israel a chance to renew itself and its promise.

At this time of personal stock-taking, teshuvah and renewal, I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson there for us all.