The recent death of Ariel “Arik” Sharon after eight mostly comatose years took from us arguably the most colorful, courageous and controversial personality in Israeli history. A month earlier, Arieh “Arik” Einstein, the most revered and iconic singer/ songwriter in Israel’s history, died suddenly. These two larger than life characters had been almost a daily part of my life even before my 1981 Aliyah.
Sharon was a manifestation of the rebirth of Israel: born into a farming family and who, at age 12, was required to take up arms to defend his family and land against marauding Arabs.
By age 20 he was a company commander in the paratroopers and was seriously wounded at the battle of Latrun in the War of Independence. At 25 he established and commanded the famed 101st paratroop brigade, which performed daring missions including the surprise parachute jump deep in the Sinai desert in the 1956 war. He is justifiably credited as the catalyst in turn- ing what threatened to be a defeat with existential implications in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to a decisive military victory, ending Arab aspirations of defeating Israel militarily. After having retired just prior to the war breaking out, he was recalled and personally mustered the remnants of the IDF in Sinai and audaciously crossed the Suez Canal to surround and threaten the Egyptian army with annihilation.
Like his military career, Sharon’s entry into politics, first on the independent “Shlomzion” list and then as a Likud minister, showed his characteristic energy, vision, leadership and ability to get anything done. This inspired the moniker “Arik the Bulldozer,” further strengthening the controversial persona he established in the army. He transformed the low-profile Ministry of Agriculture into the main arm of Likud’s settlement expansion policy in the West Bank; the settlements are to be included in Israel’s borders in any peace agreement to provide needed security.
Sharon’s boldness in the second Likud government came close to ruining his political career; if it had been anybody but Arik, it would have. As defense minister and architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, he was forced to resign after the Phalangist massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Israeli-controlled areas of Beirut as retribution for the assassination of the Christian leader, Bashir Gemayel.
The Kahan commission asserted Sharon did not order the IDF to take the necessary precautions to prevent a revenge attack and recommended that he resign as defense minister, which Arik refused to do.
I remember taking part in demonstrations demanding his resignation. Even though it was Lebanese and Palestinians kill- ing each other, something which is routine, we were ashamed we were even remotely implicated.
Due to this pressure, the government voted to demote him to minister without portfolio.
Sharon filed a $50-million libel suit against Time magazine, which implied he had encouraged the Phalangists to carry out the revenge attacks. Since he could not prove intentional malice, he did not win the case, but the U.S. court asserted that Time’s entire article was “false and malicious.”
With this and other political developments acting as a kind of unofficial exoneration, Sharon began his political comeback. As housing minister in the late ‘90s, the “Bulldozer” became a steamroller by flattening the formidable housing and construction bureaucracy to miraculously build hundreds of thousands of housing units for the one million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A friend who worked for a time as a supervisor at construction sites recalled Sharon’s visits and how he personally would rally the workers to get the job done, just as he used to do with the troops in battle.
After Netanyahu’s disastrous first term as PM, followed by an equally disappointing stint by Ehud Barak of Labor, Ariel Sharon became the 11th prime minister of Israel. Amidst the trepidation of moderate and liberal Israelis like myself, Sharon underwent the same transformation of many leaders who pre- ceded him when he radically changed his long-established views and declared Israel cannot continue to rule over 1.5 million Palestinians.
As PM, Sharon created the doctrine of “hitkansut,” which can be roughly translated as disengagement and regrouping. Believing we can no longer wait for the Palestinians to accept our existence, nor tolerate their terror, he implemented unilateral measures to disentangle ourselves from them – thus the withdrawal from Gaza and the construction of the security barrier. This was an amazing turnaround for someone who only years earlier had based his beliefs and actions on the premise that Jordan is the Palestinian state. Following his reassessment, Sharon left the intransigent and rebellious Likud behind and formed Kadima, which virtually disappeared after the stroke that ended Sharon’s career at the peak of his power eight years ago.
The abrupt and tragic end to his term leaves so many unanswered questions. I am confident that Sharon would not have allowed the unending missile barrages from Gaza following the disengagement. Because of his courageous leadership and how he was perceived by his enemies, I believe with Sharon we would be closer to an accord with the Palestinians. When Anwar Sadat landed in Israel for his historic 1977 visit, the first person he requested to meet was Sharon. When Sharon suffered his stroke and was replaced by Ehud Olmert, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly rejoiced and declared a holiday. Not coincidentally, Hezbollah provoked the second Lebanon war six months later.
Sharon also courted other forms of controversy. Beginning in 2001, there were several investigations into possible corruption. Although the attorney general chose not to charge Sharon and his sons in the cases of using their influence in the “Greek Island” scandal or of illegal loans from South African billionaire Cyril Keren, many questionable backroom transactions, deals and appointments occurred during Sharon’s tenure, including one that resulted in a jail sentence for his son Omri.
Sharon’s reputation for not respecting authority or heeding superiors created animosity, tainting his many achievements and deeds and creating constant controversy. But it is a testament to his tremendous abilities that despite this, no one succeeded in stopping him. He was convinced he knew best how to ensure the security of Israel on both a conceptual and practical level. His formidable presence at every historical junction from 1948 until 2006 is testament to this.
Sharon was a born fighter and deserves credit as one of a handful of individuals responsible for Israel surviving the uncertainty of its early years. He continued his uncompromising character in politics.
Not since Ben Gurion, and perhaps Rabin, has there been a feeling of the prime minister as a father figure for Israelis. In the years preceding his stroke, Sharon was perceived in this manner. Personally, I disliked him, often intensely, over most of his political career and feared the day that he might ascend to the prime minister’s office. Once he did, like Sharon, l too changed my opinion. I had not allowed myself to see him as a visionary and a leader who was in the end a pragmatist. These characteristics have been sorely lacking since his departure.
He fought when injured, he fought when healthy, he fought when ill. Sharon never stopped fighting, and continued to struggle when it seemed no longer humanly possible. It was the only way Arik knew.
The other Arik we lost recently, Arik Einstein, was not only the most iconic singer in Israel’s history, he was a cultural giant who touched almost every Israeli at some point in their lives – primarily through his music, but also through TV shows and movies, and through his extremely modest and self-deprecating personality. He was never comfortable with adoration and would have disapproved of the massive, widespread and almost unprecedented spontaneous national mourning that took place following his sudden death from an aneurism at the age of 74.
He was Israel’s Elvis, Sinatra and Springsteen rolled into one, but the similarities end here. Einstein was a product of Israeli society’s informal and irreverent early years. He was modest (“I’m not some musical giant, just a guy who sings ballads”), humorous (in TV shows and movies he was considered an expert, and hilariously funny, impersonator), unassuming and self-deprecating. He wrote and sang the songs that have become the soundtrack of Israel. He never spoke about his political views, instead expressing strong opinions through his music. He brought to life the lyrics of Israel’s greatest writers and poets such as Bialik, Rachel and Leah Goldberg in pop and rock songs, exposing Israel’s literary giants to younger generations.
He was born and raised in the Tel Aviv he loved. His first love was sports. He was the national Israeli youth champion in the high jump and shot put and played basketball for Hapoel Tel Aviv. He was rumored to be the first Israeli to dunk, and when he was passed up for the national team, decided to forego sports and spend all his time on music. He remained a sports freak until his death. I had the pleasure of talking to him several times when I was with the Sports Channel. His passion was the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team, whose players will wear a black band on their uniforms in his memory for the remainder of the season.
Yair Nitzani of the successful ‘80s rock band “Tislam” wrote, “Arik for me was my hero, the ultimate Israeli rascal, the guy who invented rock and roll in Hebrew, the first who sang the Beatles in the language of the bible, who taught me that you can be a musician and also do nonsensical comedy on TV and in movies. He was a professional who took his work in the most serious way possible yet took himself in the least serious way possible.”
With the news of his death, the main television channels pre-empted their regular programming. Thousands of Israelis from all walks of life descended upon the hospital and gathered outside his apartment singing his hit songs, the words of which everyone knows by heart. The following day, a memorial service at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square was held with tens of thousands in attendance. Prime Minister Netanyahu ended his eulogy saying, “Arik, you were the greatest of them all.” The radio stations played only his music in the days following his death. The Walla website calculated that in two days, his songs were played more than 6,200 times. This is even more stunning
when taking into account that he was reclusive in the final 20 years of his life. He still wrote and released new songs and gave periodic interviews, but due to deteriorating vision, and a keen displeasure with the vanity and superficiality of today’s music industry, he performed no concerts and was essentially unseen by anyone outside of his close friends, who regularly visited him in his central Tel Aviv apartment.
Einstein released 48 albums of original material, and his songs dominate the pantheon of Israeli music. All of them have meaning and significance, and almost every Israeli has at least one Einstein song that stirs strong emotions and memories. The 1978 song “San Francisco on the Water” became my Aliyah theme song. Einstein described the beauty and wonder of San Francisco and America in general, yet how badly he missed Israel. This song expressed my mixed emotions about leaving the Pacific Northwest I grew up in and loved and the America which had given me so much, yet felt the need to fulfill my Jewish destiny through Aliyah.
Arieh means lion. Ariel means lion of god. Both Ariks were lions in their own vastly different ways. Israel is not the same without them. I appreciate what they have done and miss them both.