Tuesday, January 14, 2014

At Ease in the Fields of Sharon


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No one is ambivalent about Ariel Sharon. Or ever hesitant to share strong sentiments. I’ll leave it to both admirers and detractors to give you earfuls of what they want you to know about him. Here’s what I know:

"Arik" Sharon knew his beloved country Israel by the inch, every inch, conceivably and convincingly better than the proverbial back of his hand. Once, to make a point to me, he reached into his back pocket, withdrew a map of Israel he evidently always carried with him, and spread it out over the front fender of a parked car. His index finger deftly indicating spot after spot of land, he said, "We can’t give this back to them because it’s high ground they can easily attack us from… can’t let them have this because it’s directly above a road we use for civilian and military transit… can’t vacate this because a rock thrown from here can stop or kill someone." A rock! He wasn’t nearly finished, but he’d made his point—life and death in the Middle East wasn’t, as commonly perceived, so much periodic and precariously seismic as it was day-to-day, hand-to-hand, inescapably rooted in biblical times.

He was an impassioned patriot and single-minded warrior. "A tank coming through," an early but former ally of his, Geulah Cohen, memorably characterized him for me during a late-evening reminiscence at Israel’s Knesset. "He’s here, and he sees there," she pointed, "and nothing in between. He would roll over anything—even his mother, I believe—that stood in his way." 

In June, 1982, in response to the PLO’s persistent missile attacks on northern Israeli towns and a Palestinian terrorist group’s attempted assassination of Israel's Ambassador to Great Britain, the Israel Defense Forces, under then defense minister Sharon’s leadership, stormed across Lebanon’s southern border, subsequently sweeping north through Lebanon in a stunning victory over PLO, Syrian and Muslim Lebanese forces. When I asked him about the "game plan" and the "wisdom" of the show of force, he told me with boyish candor that it was not part of any strategy he had in mind, but that his forces encountered so little effective resistance from the PLO, "We just kept going." With an expansive shrug and his irrepressible smile, he explained, "We couldn’t stop!"

During the Christmas/Chanukah holidays of 1982, I accompanied Elizabeth Taylor to Israel. Prior to our departure from the United States, I promised I’d take her to Lebanon after the New Year, a prospect that particularly excited her. I would introduce her to the newly, democratically elected government officials of the country, she would be feted at the presidential palace, and, as the pièce de résistance, we would meet, possibly even ride with, Major Sa’ad Haddad, a hero of Lebanon’s Civil War and a friend.

On New Year’s Day, 1983, I was taking Elizabeth to the Sharon farm in southern Israel. We rode from Tel Aviv in the back seat of a limo, following another car while an uncustomarily hard rain continued to fall. When the lead car drove suddenly into a flooded road and slammed on its brakes, ours plowed into it. Elizabeth screamed, our bodies were thrown forward, and we wound up sprawled on the floor of the limo, her leg bleeding, a finger eerily bent, I barely able to breathe. Transferred to other cars, we arrived at the Sharons’ separately, rain-soaked and battered. He stood waiting outside under a carport for me, and lifted me out of the car as if I were weightless. "We can’t get a helicopter in the air in this weather, so a doctor is driving down from Tel Aviv," he told me. "He said to keep you warm, quiet and comfortable."

He did his best to. Blankets and brandy were administered, the fireplace stoked as ice compresses were applied. While Elizabeth, her injured leg up on an ottoman, was, by her own description, "chewing on brandy," Arik told us about the farm, i.e., we have so many acres and so many goats and so many sheep, and… and I wasn’t in any condition to pay attention. Quite soon, neither was Elizabeth. When the doctor arrived, we turned the Sharon house into a clinic. The doctor took turns examining us on the Sharon’s dining room table, concluding we had to go to the hospital—back in Tel Aviv!

Elizabeth was relegated to a neck brace, a finger cast—middle-finger upright, leg and back dressings, and a wheel chair. As Elizabeth’s landing field, I sustained a side of broken ribs. Nevertheless, we were hell-bound for Lebanon. I requested a helicopter from the general, who objected vehemently. "They will shoot the copter out of the air before it is two feet off the ground! They would love the publicity!" His "they" was the PLO. Our dialogue turned increasingly heated that evening as he, from a radio station following an interview, and I, from my hotel room preceding having to face Elizabeth, continued to debate the issue. To my astonishment, I won! Or so I believed—briefly. No sooner had I prevailed than his steadfast admonishment caught up with me. In retrospect, I think he banked on it. I informed Elizabeth that we were not going to Lebanon and braved seeing her on the brink of tears. (In due time, I will relate the droll details of most of those past 48 hours. For now, I’ll just say:) I felt caught between a rock and a hard place—and suspected that Arik represented both.

In 1983, Arik Sharon sued Time magazine for libel over a cover story alleging he had encouraged the revenge-taking that led to massacres at two Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, the previous year. In 1985, the day before the federal jury rendered its verdict after 11 days of deliberation, I visited his wife Lily and him in a US District Court in Manhattan as they waited in a small chamber with several others until given word there would be no decision that day. We descended the courthouse steps into nightfall to find the sidewalk and street devoid of life but for several taxis, which Arik began hailing and ushering the others into. Before he and Lily climbed into the last of them, he asked me how I was getting home. I cited subway or bus or the possibility of walking a little, but he said it was too dark and desolate, and not safe for me. I told him not to worry, "this is my city, I live here, I’m fine!" But he would have none of that. He practically shoe-horned me into a crowded taxi headed uptown.

The last time I saw him was in May, 2000, at a reception in Manhattan. I may have taken the only photo with him where he wasn’t smiling. Neither of us was. An opportunity to speak quietly together had given us time to commiserate with each other: Lily had died in March and I had just lost my mother. Our conversation was respectfully interrupted by a photographer I knew from these photo-op-filled occasions. Chatting earlier in the evening with him, I mentioned the irony of not having even one photo with the general. The conscientious fellow decided to amend that before he dashed to another assignment. It wasn’t an ideal time. I posted the photo above to illustrate that.

Speaking of "an ideal time," Gilad Sharon said that his father "went when he decided to go." That was the Sharon I knew.

3 comments:

  1. What great remembrances, Ray. Intimate moments with towering figures... wow. Think you should do a book...

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  2. I read and then I scrolled down and then I scrolled down and half an hour later I decided time to go to sleep . Such good writing. It’s a pleasure. Hardly anybody writes a decent sentence these days. It surely DOES work.

    Barbara L.

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