Arik Sharon sank into a coma six years ago. All of us followed it and prayed with hope as the ambulance disappeared into the hospital. When today I try to think about the essence of the public longing for Sharon, six years later, it appears that the longing for Arik has turned into longing for a prime minister who does not fear domestic politics and who sees the welfare of the nation of Israel before him when making decisions.
Arik proved that a leader does not have to fear the radicals in his party and does not have to fear a change in his positions when considering the welfare of the State and the Jewish people’s future.
I miss his palm, which would pound the table decisively, a gesture that implied "find a solution" when he was dissatisfied with operational plans presented by the army; the decisive pounding that implied “get to work” in the face of the bureaucracy; the decisive pounding implying “enough – no more!” in the face of politicians who attempted to resort to exploitation in order to get more. He always viewed these politicians cynically and humorously.
During my first steps in politics, I met him, a superb leader, at the home of a Likud activist. Arik opened his speech with a cynical, captivating smile. “I’m sorry,” he said,” I was busy in recent months and therefore I did not manage to attend all the weddings and bar mitzvahs you invited me to.” In that sentence I got to know the politics of the Likud Central Committee, but also Arik the person.
He cynically referred to the bunch of politicians who traveled from one city to another in the aims of getting elected as a “traveling circus.” “It would be good to approach politics with humor,” he told me, and I understood it later, on days where he sat alone in the Knesset cafeteria, observing small and large instances of treachery around him.
Caring about Jewish people
Two more political images of Sharon accompany me. The first one is seeing Arik at the Knesset plenum, restrained and incredibly focused on the words uttered by random speakers at the podium, knowing that his rivals, headed by Netanyahu, are sweating outside in an attempt to topple him. Yet Arik remained relaxed, as if it was another world that does not pertain to him.
The second image is of Arik leaving his office after dismissing Shas’ ministers with one gesture of leadership. This image repeated when he dismissed the National Union ministers who objected to the disengagement and proved that for a real leader, political considerations do not dictate policy, but rather, policy dictates political decisions; a prime minister who does not cave in to the caprices of sectarian parties.
When Arik Sharon thought that the haredi parties – his natural partners as they are known in Likud to this day – do not allow him to realize the policy needed for the country, he formed a government without them.
The Jewish issue was not sectarian at all for him. The Jewish people’s future bothered him. He made his decisions based on this concern. Jewish immigration was a value for him. “Bring another million immigrants,” he told me in our last one-on-one conversation, and embraced the new arrivals as if they were family.
I remember him always excited at the annual meeting at Sukkoth in his home with new immigrant combat soldiers; some of them were naturally non-Jewish and were in the midst of the conversion process. Arik would take pleasure in their combat service, and lament the difficult conversation process and the demand for strict adherence to the mitzvahs as a condition for conversation. “They would not be converting me either,” he said, “and nobody thinks I’m not Jewish enough.
And just as he took pleasure in the immigrants, he reprimanded those who did not make Aliyah yet. In every visit abroad he would urge any Jewish audience to move to Israel and lament the traveling Jew who does not cling to the Land of Israel’s soil.
During those visits abroad, he was able to enlist world leaders to the cause of Israel’s security needs. It wasn’t simple to gain their trust. World leaders were initially captive by his old image. Yet within a short period of time, without diplomatic manners, he gained that trust. “I’m a farmer,” he would say, “and when added “I mean what I said and I only say what I intend to do,” they believed him and knew it was true. To this day, in my meetings with leaders abroad, I discover that the longing for this direct leader still exists worldwide.
I saw Arik in the disengagement too, taking a dramatic decision against the camp that supported him based on the belief that avoiding a decision would harm Israel’s future and security. I saw him sustaining the fury of the settlers after making the decision.
Before the evacuation I initiated the meeting between the evacuees and the man who made the decision about their lives. No eye remained dry. I saw him showing concern for every detail, to the point of finding a place for the tractor of every farmer. This responsibility for the evacuees’ future, which I know Arik carried in his heart, is kept in my heart to this day.
Six years ago he fell ill, after managing to establish Kadima. In the decisive meeting on forming Kadima we were still members of Likud, while the radicals attempted to constrain the leader who made a diplomatic decision for the sake of Israel’s security and the Jewish people’s future; they constrained him to the point of not being able to coexist anymore. He made the decision, and Kadima was established.
The principles we attempted to convince Likud members to follow turned into Kadima’s platform. Some of us joined immediately, taking the personal political risk inherent in leaving deeply entrenched parties such as Likud and Labor; others hesitated and joined later.
It was clear to us back then, as it’s clear to us today more than ever before, that ideology is not a matter for radicals alone, and that realizing the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state requires leadership that first asks what’s good for the State and for the Jewish people and only later asks what’s good for our coalition partners.
Just like we long for the deceive pounding on the table, I believe the public longs for leadership that takes decisions and assumes responsibility even when taking the toughest calls; leadership that always sees before it the future of Israel and the Jewish people rather than some public opinion poll. It took Sharon years to win the love of the people, and he won it precisely because he acted based on his beliefs and not in line with the public’s random mood.
Arik Sharon fell silent six years ago, yet his faith persists to this day, and he left it up to us to finish the job.
Tzipi Livni, Kadima’s chairwoman