- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finally had a few moments’ peace just after lunchtime last Sunday to make one of the most important decisions in his long military and political career.

He had spent the morning with his Cabinet and in a succession of meetings with leaders from the national and religious parties in his ruling coalition.

Alone in the prime minister’s office, in a leafy but highly fortified street in West Jerusalem, he began calling the members of his “Ranch Forum” — a select group of about 15 friends and advisers, named for Mr. Sharon’s private cattle ranch in the Negev desert, where they usually meet weekly. On the telephone, Mr. Sharon asked each of them, one last time, to rehearse the arguments for and against his leaving the hard-line Likud Party that he helped to found in 1973.

Immediately afterward, in a series of meetings in his office, with just his personal secretary taking notes, Mr. Sharon began asking senior political allies from Likud whether they would jump ship and join him in a new party. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert agreed, as did Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who was dispatched to gauge support among Likud members of parliament.

At 4 p.m., Mr. Sharon invited Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit to sit in one of the three brown upholstered chairs in front of his desk and make up his mind — the third minister to join a new party.

The prime minister sought to assure himself that he had the required numbers. Fourteen rebels were needed for his new party, later named “Forward,” to qualify for state cash. The Ranch Forum waited in suspense.

“The last meeting was the previous night,” said lawyer Yoram Rabad, one of its members. “When we had left the ranch, we didn’t know. When I spoke to Ariel on [last] Sunday morning, I still didn’t know.”

It was dark, after 9 p.m., when Mr. Sharon finally summoned the Ranch Forum to his office. There, he told the people who do most to shape his political thinking that he had decided to turn his back on Likud.

He would walk away from the party for which he had led the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories, so that he could be free from its objections to pulling down the settlements today. He would ditch the party that had propelled him into the top job when he was considered by many to be a dangerous right-wing extremist, a war criminal even, and form a moderate, centrist bloc instead.

“He said: ‘I have made up my mind,’” said Eyal Arad, a senior political adviser and member of the forum, “and the rest is history.”

On the face of it, the political turbulence of the past week marks a chapter in the 77 years of Mr. Sharon’s life that confounds almost every page written before. He made his name as a military tough guy, from when he joined the Jewish underground in his teens, through his rapid rise from platoon to company commander in the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, and then as chief of a special operations unit “101” that launched cross-border raids against Israel’s enemies in the 1950s.

His units suffered, and inflicted, casualties that drew widespread criticism, but his zeal in the service of his country was never doubted. Uri Dan, one of Mr. Sharon’s closest friends, said: “Ariel feels things, and his courage is about self-control, again and again.”

After he began his political career in 1973, Mr. Sharon was soon implanting Jewish settlements in the land he had helped to conquer as a division commander in the 1967 Six Day War — broadening Israel’s “thin neck” between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

“Every day, we would go together in Judea and Samaria,” said Mr. Dan, using the biblical name for the West Bank. “One summer’s day, we got out of his car and were climbing up a hill. He was sitting on a rock wearing regular khaki trousers, blue shirt and a green jacket — even though it was hot.

“He looked down to the Jordan Valley on one side and to the sea on the other. He said: ‘One day, there will be a town of 50,000 Jews here.’”

Mr. Sharon shares his name with the settlement founded that day in 1978: Ariel. Built on a crucial east-west axis on the West Bank, 10 miles beyond the “Green line” of the 1967 armistice, Ariel now counts 18,000 settlers.

Whatever the terms of any final peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, Ariel seems certain to remain standing, and inside the territory of the Israeli state. But Mr. Sharon, a pioneer of settlements, appears committed to tearing down others, following the removal of almost two dozen in Gaza earlier this year.

It is a realignment that Mr. Dan describes as “hellish and very painful” for his old friend.

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