Editor’s Notes: Meet the prime minister

By David Horovitz April 22, 2005

It’s a momentous and a terrible job, leading Israel. In our unfinished Zionist experiment, failure can be cataclysmic, existential

The entrance is to the side of the official residence, a once-unremarkable Rehavia building now sealed off from a curious, potentially threatening world behind high stone walls and metal fencing.

Herb Keinon, the Post’s diplomatic correspondent, and I pass through a metal detector into a narrow, tree-shaded alleyway. On the facing wall of the adjacent building, some black graffiti has been inexpertly sprayed over – mindless, nonpolitical graffiti that predates the vicious anti-Sharon scrawlings that now pop up intermittently elsewhere in the capital.

Three cameramen from the Reuters news agency are waiting ahead of us – improbably, it turns out, neither to interview, nor even photograph the prime minister, but simply to say hello to him. When they’re ushered out from their brief audience, we’re taken in, along with our photographer Ariel Jerozolimski, past an immaculate lawn square into a courtyard. From here, through glass doors and windows, we can see the prime minister in his ground-floor study, alone at his desk, head low over some paperwork.

An aide enters, presumably to ask him if he minds coming outside for our photographer while the light is still good, and he nods his assent. A security guard lowers a white canvas awning over part of the courtyard; even under open skies in his own back yard, evidently Sharon is not deemed safe. He ambles good-naturedly in our direction, all smiles and handshakes, poses, then leads the way back into his study.

His desk is nearly clear; certainly much clearer than mine. Perhaps it’s proof of an orderly administration. There’s what looks like a photo album at his left elbow, a few printed pages in front of him summarizing his recent talks with President Bush – to which he will demonstratively refer in the course of the interview – some notes in his own handwriting on A4 paper, and that’s about it.

Remarkably robust though he is, and singlehandedly, nervelessly championing his own radical policy shift under extraordinary pressure, Sharon is nevertheless a man of 77, and you are immediately conscious of it. His eyes don’t quite focus on the same point; his neck seems to be giving him pain; from time to time he snaps his head to one side. Still, his hearing seems fine, and although his answers sometimes set out from disconcerting departure spots, they do generally reach appropriate destinations.

THE PRIME minister. An elderly gentleman. A figure of immense controversy, greatly admired by some, deeply loathed by others. A man with relentless demands on his time. I am thinking of all these aspects of Ariel Sharon as we take our seats opposite him.

There’s a lot of ground we’d like to cover, and we plainly won’t make it in the hour we’ve been allotted. (As it turns out, we’re there for a few minutes beyond that, but we still don’t get to questions we wanted to ask about Syria and Lebanon, coalition politics, his riven Likud party, the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, his relationship with entrepreneur David Appel and much more.) I’m worried that he’ll want to offer lengthy, repetitive, generalized statements – whatever the specific questions – and concerned not to give him openings to do that. But I don’t want to be excessively rude.

In the event, he most certainly does have a message he’s bent on conveying – about the strength, resilience and centrality of the relationship he insists he’s forged with the US administration. And though he doesn’t seem to mind particularly being interrupted, and proves relatively forthcoming on some issues, what I think is most telling is the subject matter on which he is non-specific.

While he disarmingly claims the contrary, Ariel Sharon is in fact a thoroughly articulate politician. So when he sounds vague or evasive, it’s because he is being vague or evasive – not because he can’t find the precise language to convey his position.

And in this interview, he is evasive, understandably, on what Israel might do if Iran gets to the brink of a nuclear capability and all diplomatic efforts, sanctions, initiatives and hopes of a US-led coalition to thwart it have failed. And he is vague, again understandably, about his long-term vision of Israeli control in the West Bank, insisting that there will be no pre-Road Map ‘Disengagement II,’ adamant that the security barrier does not represent a political boundary, but non-specific about how much of the West Bank he considers indefinitely essential to Israel’s well-being.

Herb and I both inject a personal note when querying him about the status of that territory – Herb because he lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, me because I have family in Ofra. His parting comment to Herb, delivered with a chuckle as we are leaving, is that he shouldn’t sell his Ma’aleh Adumim apartment; no such twinkling farewell reassurances are forthcoming in relation to Ofra.

Where he speaks in absolute certainties and specifics is on the imperative to leave Gaza. It may be a function of age, but his personal history suggests, rather, that he was always this way: reaching a stark, acute dilemma, taking a decision about how to proceed, and then banishing all doubt and bulldozing forward. In his own mind, the arguments for and against disengagement have long since been rendered irrelevant; those who are not persuaded are simply, foolishly, refusing to absorb the logic of the choice.

It’s a momentous and a terrible job, leading Israel. The consequences of failure are not the usual prime ministerial or presidential consequences – electoral rejection and an unflattering place in the historical pantheon. In our unfinished Zionist experiment, failure can be cataclysmic, existential.

Perhaps that’s why we seem to have two types of prime ministers.

There are those, the minority, who are so terrified of screwing up that they spend their years in office striving at all costs to maintain the status quo, for fear of taking the decisions that propel Israel down the slippery slope to destruction.

And there are those, the majority, who persuade themselves that they alone can save the nation, and that others who see the country’s best interests in different hues from their own are hopelessly mistaken.

No prizes for guessing which camp Sharon belongs to.

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