- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

TEL AVIV — On most afternoons, veterans from Israel’s 1948 war of independence can be found around a table at a cafe in central Tel Aviv.

They are contemporaries of Ariel Sharon, the lionized Israeli prime minister who lies in a coma after suffering a massive stroke.

For them, the end of Mr. Sharon’s political career also signals something of a swan song for their generation, which came to Israel in the shadow of two world wars and then fought for the country’s birth and survival.

Wrinkled and hard of hearing, they can be curt at the approach of a stranger.

When asked about their past, they pull out plastic health care cards identifying them as former members of the Palmach, the military division of the largest Jewish underground in pre-state Palestine.

“I was in the Negev Desert in a jeep. We chased Egyptian tanks across the desert, and the tanks fled,” said Nissim Gabbai, 83. “See him? He was part of the convoys,” the ones that supplied the Jewish community besieged in Jerusalem.

Mr. Gabbai and the others from Israel’s “greatest generation” carry an intense idealism, shaped by the trauma and displacement of the Holocaust, a revolt against British Mandate authorities and tension with Palestinian Arab neighbors.

For them, self-sacrifice was valued over individualism. A military record became the crucial factor in careers and social status. Generals were the heroes of their day.

With about 650,000 Jewish residents at its birth, Israel was even more close-knit than the tiny country is today.

When Mr. Sharon was voted in as prime minister in February 2001, the second Palestinian intifada was in its first months. Many Israelis at the time compared the fighting to the 1948 war.

It was amid this crisis that Mr. Sharon helped reunite Israel’s fractious political and ethnic groups, Mr. Gabbai said. “When Sharon came, we were together again.”

Since deciding to dismantle Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Sharon, once considered a reckless hawk, has prompted comparisons to the country’s larger-than-life leaders: David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister; Menachem Begin, who made peace with Egypt; and Yitzhak Rabin, the war hero who became the first to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand.

“His generation was the heroic generation,” said David Witzthum, an Israeli television news anchor. “Sharon was the last statesman who saw himself as completing the project of founding the state.”

Those present at Israel’s birth best appreciate Mr. Sharon.

“For me, Israel isn’t something taken for granted; it’s something we fought for and paid for,” said Amira Stern, the chief archivist at the Jabotinsky Institute, dedicated to Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, who founded the movement that is the forerunner of modern Likud.

Six years old at the time of Israel’s birth, Mrs. Stern remembers visiting her father, a Jewish militant, in a British jail and being bombed by the Egyptians in Israel’s war for independence.

“The generation afterward is a more normal generation. It’s used to independence and freedom. There’s a pursuit of money, the stock exchange and cars,” she said.

Though Mr. Sharon resided on a sprawling and prosperous ranch and his children were implicated in corruption scandals, his popularity as prime minister owed to the fact he was able to link his identity with the national interest in the mind of the public, said Gad Yaacobi, 69, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

“Even when he was wrong, it was because he thought this policy served the Israeli interest,” Mr. Yaacobi said.

Rivka Aloni, 76, arrived in Palestine at the age of 6 from a town in the German province in Bavaria. She remembers hearing the gunfire that broke out during the Palestinian Arab revolt against the British that lasted from 1936 to 1939.

“When we fought for our independence, it was in the hope that it would be the last war,” she said. “We thought there would be more calm, but it didn’t happen.”

A former prisoner of war who was captured by the Jordanians in 1948, Mrs. Aloni doesn’t see a resolution any time soon to her country’s conflict with its Arab neighbors. Yet she supported Mr. Sharon’s decision to quit Gaza.

“He took a big thing upon himself,” she said. “I don’t know if this will do good for us, but it was something that we had to try.

“History only knows.”

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