In the shadow of Sharon

He lies unconscious, two years after a stroke ended his political career. Israel can only wonder how its history would have unfolded had fate not intervened
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The Independent Online

The man who would surely still be Prime Minister of Israel today had he not suffered a massive stroke, is still fighting what threatens to be the last of a lifetime of battles, military, political and personal.

He lies in a coma in a private room at the Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Hashomer, guarded 24 hours a day by two plainclothes men from the intelligence service, Shin Bet. He has not regained consciousness since his stroke more than two years ago. But Ariel Sharon, who turned 80 last month, remains indomitably alive.

Although he is fed through a tube – and no longer anything like the 17 stone he once weighed – he breathes on his own without a ventilator. His closest family, his son Gilad and daughter-in-law Inbal and, until he began serving a seven-month sentence last month for political funding violations during his father's successful campaign for the Likud party leadership in 1999, his other son Omri, have visited almost daily and have never given up hoping that he will one day come round.

Dressed in protective clothing to minimise the risk of infection, they play him music, read him newspapers and sometimes sit him in front of the television. While the family have detected definite signs of a response to such stimuli, the hospital is not commenting. Spokesman David Weinberg said yesterday that at the family's request it had agreed not to say anything "unless there is a dramatic change, and there hasn't been".

The patient's long-time friend and lieutenant Dov Weisglass says the prospects for a recovery "don't look very promising". But he points out there is no complex life-support system to take an agonising decision about. "No one is going to pull out the feeding tube and let him die of starvation," he says.

Given the uncertainty which has followed the rapidly escalating violence in Gaza, and last week's killing of eight Jewish students at a national religious yeshiva in Jerusalem, it's surprising that the "What would Sharon have done?" question is not asked more frequently in Israel, especially as so much of it concerns his own legacy.

Mr Weisglass, as a lawyer attached to the military advocate general's office, first met Mr Sharon in 1983 when he was assigned to represent the then defence minister in the investigation into his role in the Phalangist massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila camps in Lebanon which all but cost Mr Sharon his career. Twenty years later, Mr Sharon, now prime minister, persuaded Mr Weisglass to join him as his bureau chief during Operation Defensive Shield, the bloody military offensive against the second intifada.

Having known Mr Sharon's personal political thoughts better than most, Mr Weisglass is cautious about speculating about what might have been, and "hypothetical" is a word he uses often in a conversation in his law firm's office on Tel Aviv's bohemian Lilienblum Street. But on Lebanon, where the victory-less 34-day war in 2006 was arguably the formative event in the premiership of Mr Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, Mr Weisglass says that after the abduction of two soldiers, "I do not think he would have agreed to or allowed a large-scale ground operation". Instead, he suggests, Mr Sharon, who as Prime Minister had exchanged prisoners with Hizbollah, would have ordered the air force to strike "much more strongly than in previous episodes.

"I think he would have said that Hizbollah should be given a painful lesson, but I don't think there would have been a ground operation. He was very, very careful, acting very responsibly when it came to the situation of a military operation on [such] a significant scale. That was one lesson he learned out of the first war in Lebanon."

It was, of course, because of the failures of Lebanon that Mr Olmert felt unable to implement the "convergence" plan on which he had fought the 2006 election, namely the gradual and unilateral withdrawal from some settlements in the West Bank.

Mr Weisglass implies that this plan was built on the very preliminary thinking about "building on the momentum" of the August 2005 withdrawal from Gaza that Mr Sharon himself had done before his stroke. This would, he thinks, have led to limited withdrawals in the West Bank, from some of the "remote, isolated settlements" and perhaps of the military in some areas, handing over security control of Ramallah, say, and Jericho and their surrounding villages to the Palestinians.

Mr Sharon did not believe that the creation of the Palestinian state, the theory at least of which he had finally publicly accepted, was feasible "in the near future", nor would he have embarked on the present "impossible mission" of talks between Mahmoud Abbas and Mr Olmert to try to agree the outlines of one. "I do not think he believed people on both sides at the present time were ready to make the sacrifices needed to end the gap between them," says Mr Weisglass. "He did believe in the need if possible to reach some form of interim agreement."

Mr Weisglass depicts his old boss as having been "torn between" the possibility of "doing nothing" offered by an internationally agreed road-map "which was a beautiful piece of paper" because "we knew these guys would never fulfil their obligations" [to curb the armed groups] and a belief "that time does work against us and that as the 'last of the Mohicans' he could make this very painful sort of territorial change". As a veteran who had fought in Israel's wars since he joined Haganah the age of 16, he had the confidence, says Mr Weisglass, to make concessions, and take them back if they did not lead to reduced violence.

Whether even this would have happened, of course, remains uncertain. The absence of the Lebanon war which did so much to weaken Mr Olmert might have given Mr Sharon a freer hand. But Mr Weisglass declines to venture an opinion on whether this would have been cancelled by the rise of Hamas which swiftly followed Mr Sharon's stroke. Mr Weisglass discloses that the US had flatly overruled the urgings of the Sharon government that Hamas should not be allowed to participate in the January 2006 elections.

"Once we had to agree [that Hamas could take part] we didn't have any control over the outcome. I don't blame the Americans for this. They were convinced by Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] that the elections would have led Hamas into a ... honey trap." The Abbas pitch, Mr Weisglass says, was that by securing say 25 per cent of the vote Hamas would be lured into embracing politics instead of violence while being unable to exercise power. Instead, Hamas won the elections, and against a Fatah which 18 months later they were able to defeat by force of arms in Gaza, despite the latter's supposedly much greater numerical strength.

Either way Mr Weisglass describes how much Mr Sharon enjoyed his "wonderful last year" as Prime Minister, in which having pulled the troops and 8,000 settlers out of Gaza, he felt he had finally exorcised the reputation of being the "world's bad boy" and the "symbol of radical extremism".

"When he became Prime Minister [in 2001] the majority of the international community treated him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion," says Mr Weisglass. "They put him on a kind of probational basis; he was almost presumed guilty until proved innocent."

For many Palestinians, the goal of disengagement from Gaza is still seen as having been to consolidate Israel's grip on the occupied West Bank. It's a view that had been fuelled by Mr Weisglass himself, who played a key role in negotiating the agreement with President George Bush that the main "population centres" of West Bank settlers would be on the Israeli side of any future border, and who memorably said in October 2004 that the other West Bank settlements would "not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns".

When Mr Sharon was invited to address the UN General Assembly in September 2005 it was as if he had finally come in from the cold. Mr Weisglass recalls the queue of heads of state and government wanting to shake his hand, the applause from bystanders, and even the UN staff in the corridors asking him to pose for pictures.

Of course, it's possible that Mr Sharon would have chosen, as Mr Olmert did, to form a coalition with Labour rather than the Likud party he had formed a generation earlier and had broken away from a month before his stroke; and that Amir Peretz, uncontaminated by being defence minister in a failed Lebanon war, and a believer in serious negotiations with the Palestinians, might have remained Labour leader and exercised real influence. But this is at one extreme of an endless spectrum of permutations. All that can be said is that Mr Sharon would surely have had more authority than his successor to deliver the policy of his government. Whatever that might have been.