HH: Former prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, was laid to rest today near his Sycamore Ranch in the Negev Desert. Joining me to perhaps recall for Americans who don’t know, and for those who do know, the great importance of Ariel Sharon is Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Ambassador Oren, welcome, and thank you for joining us on what must be a very emotional day in Israel.
MO: Good to be with you, Hugh. Yes, it was quite a day. I attended the ceremony at the Knesset and then at the gravesite. World leaders, certainly Israeli leaders present and past were there coming together to commemorate truly an extraordinary figure in Israeli history, a figure that one of our founding fathers, that covered the period from the creation of Israel in 1948 until very recently, a figure not without controversy. But that controversy was set aside today as people celebrated his extraordinary accomplishments, his heroism and his leadership.
HH: Later in the program, I’ll be joined by Jonathan Tobin of Commentary, and by Yossi Klein Halevi from Jerusalem. And I’m going to ask them the same thing I’m going to ask you. For the general American audience who may not recall everything about Sharon as he’s been in the twilight for nearly a decade, can you capsulize what he meant to Israel?
MO: Well, as I say, he’s a member of the founding father generation that today, really, within the last, outside of Shimon Peres, our president, he was wounded and left for dead in a desperate battle in Israel’s war of independence in 1948. In the 1950s, at a time when the Israeli army was very demoralized, he created the famous commander group, 101, that fought terrorism in its first attempt to destroy Israel. In the 1956 campaign, he created the paratroopers and led them behind Egyptian lines to a very dashing and daring victory there. ’67, Six Day War, he was one of the successful generals on the Egyptian front, and in 1973, the Yom Kippur War, he led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal in a military maneuver that’s still studied at West Point today, to surround the Egyptian Army and bring a very successful conclusion of the war. And then he worked into politics. He was a champion of the settlement movement. According to his son today, he created a hundred different settlements. But he was also the architect of the very ill-fated Lebanon War starting in 1982, the Siege of Beirut, the Sabra And Shatila Massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian militia men, which compelled Sharon to resign, found indirectly responsible by an Israeli investigative committee. And then he comes back. When everyone thinks he’s gone, he comes back, and he comes back as a prime minister at a time when Israel is on the verge of imploding under Palestinian suicide bombers, after the outbreak of the terror war in 2000, and he beats them back again. He beats back terror again and again. But no sooner has he crushed the Palestinian uprising than he turned around and uprooted almost 20 settlements that he himself had helped create in the Gaza Strip, removing 8,000 settlers from their home, some of them forcibly, another four settlements on the West Bank, and he was prepared to withdraw even further unilaterally to the West Bank when he was struck down by a massive stroke. And that was in ’06.
HH: Now Ambassador Oren, many people, Jonathan Tobin says we really don’t have an analogy in America, and I think he’s more like de Gaulle than anything else. But since you, you’re a historian, and I also am assuming that you worked personally with Sharon and had conversations with him. What was he like to work with? And what was he like just to be with?
MO: Well, I’ve had several encounters with Sharon, and they confirm what just about anybody who has worked with him will tell you, that for all of his controversial nature on the international stage, all of his audacity on the field of battle, on the personal level, he was a very kind, caring, unassuming person who radiated warmth. And people who worked with him loved him. One of the speeches, one of those moving speeches today at the Knesset was by his personal secretary, who had been a personal secretary also for Yitzhak Rabin and for Ehud Barak, who were Labor prime ministers. And when she found out that she was going to be working for Ariel Sharon, he submitted her resignation. And she told us, related how Ehud Barak said no, you must work for Ari Sharon. You’re going to find a different man. And she ended up working for him for five years, and eventually going in to apologize to him for some of the earlier reservations that she had had, and she ended up loving him. And I don’t think that her story is an exception.
HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, is there a legatee? Does anyone hold the Sharon pedigree? Is there someone who speaks for the Sharonite movement in the way that de Gaulle left behind an entire movement and not just a person?
MO: Well, not entirely. I mean, no one has had those type of heroic roles in warfare that span not one, but many wars. By…on the other token, no one also has that same type of controversy behind him, like the Lebanon War or the disengagement, Lebanon War very unpopular, the last disengagement very unpopular in the right in Israel. But the big question is leadership, and he was, whether you disagreed with Sharon, whether you liked him or disliked him, no one could gainsay his leadership, that he was a man who was capable taking great decisions. And today, you have in Prime Minister Netanyahu, you have a man who has a very respected military background as a commando in Israel’s special forces, and many years of legislation and leadership and diplomatic history. He has some very important decisions to make in the coming years, certainly, whether it be on the peace issue or on the Iranian issue.
HH: And a last question, Mr. Ambassador, and thanks for staying up late on an emotion-filled day in Israel. If you look at the Sharon leadership style, what’s its greatest strength, and what’s its greatest weakness?
MO: Well, the greatest strength, of course, is his ability to make very hard decisions, sometimes out of the box. So in the decision to create a commando group in the 1950s when such groups didn’t exist, as he conducts cross-border raids was out of the box. Everything he did with the paratroopers was. Building settlements in his time was out of the box. And disengaging them was as well. That was Sharon’s hallmark, his ability to take the tough decisions, and the decisions that sometimes that nobody saw coming. The drawback was his inability at times to take the public with him, and certainly, the major share of the public. And this is what he learned, I believe, Hugh, during the first years of that Palestinian intifada, which broke out in September of 2000 with this rash of terrible suicide bombers that eventually claimed the lives of a thousand Israelis. And I’ll never forget living in Jerusalem and hearing these bombs going off almost every day, every night, and asked myself when is Sharon going to act? When it Sharon going to, why is he holding fire? And Sharon waited. He waited, he waited to make sure that he had the public behind him.
HH: And did he care a whit about international opinion? Or was it just the Israeli public?
MO: He cared about international opinion. Particularly, he cared about his relationship with President Bush. And certainly after 9/11, President Bush had a change of thought about the war on terror. And he recognized a very close ally in Arik Sharon. And the beginning of the Bush administration, there were reservations on the American side about some of the actions Israel was taking to defend itself, but in March, 2002, President Bush came out every night and said Israel had the right to defend itself. And it was very controversial.
HH: And on that note, Ambassador Michael Oren, Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States, thanks for spending time with us on an emotion day in Israel and staying up late to do so. We greatly appreciate it.
End of interview.