Israel's Ariel Sharon: A Man Of War's Journey Toward Peace

Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who suffered a devastating stroke in 2006 at the height of his political power, died Saturday after spending eight years in a coma. NPR's Scott Simon remembers Sharon with former ambassador Dennis Ross, who has played a leading role in shaping U.S. policy on Israel.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. I'm going to take this moment to remember the life of Ariel Sharon, Israel's former prime minister. Mr. Sharon suffered a devastating stroke in 2006 at the height of his political power. He died today after spending years in a coma. Former ambassador Dennis Ross has played a leading role in shaping U.S. policy on Israel and the Middle East and he first met Ariel Sharon in 1982, and joins us now. Mr. Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: Ariel Sharon's autobiography was called, "Warrior," not prime minister. He was a military man, he was in five wars before he entered politics. How do you think his military background shaped his leadership?

ROSS: Well, it gave him a sense, in the most fundamental way possible, what's important. It made him feel that Israel was in a fight for survival and, you know, he saw a lot of his comrades die in terms of ensuring that the state would not only emerge but survive and sustain itself. And I think it gave him a perspective that he always needed to be thinking strategically.

I think that Ariel Sharon was a chess player, not a checkers player. He was always thinking about how he could position Israel in a way that would make it more secure. For a long time that was through the lens of creating facts on the ground and through how you build Israel's military strength, and then during his period as prime minister, it was how you could secure Israel from a standpoint of security and peace.

SIMON: Facts on the ground, a kind of euphemism for the settlements. So how do we understand - here was a man who was often identified as the architect of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, later shifting his position to become the prime minister who removed settlements from those areas.

ROSS: Again, I think you have to - it may seem cynical to say it, but I think the facts on the ground were him - were designed to build Israel's leverage. And its leverage could ensure its security, but if he felt that that leverage could be used to get what Israel needed from a peace standpoint, he was prepared to do that as well. What motivated him more than anything else was his view of what it took for Israel to survive in the long run and he was always thinking in a longer period of time. That was a perspective that he almost always brought to bear.

SIMON: How do you assess his relations with Palestinian leaders? He often pointed out that he grew up speaking Arabic as a native born Israeli. How did he - what kind of accommodation or working relationship did he have with Yasser Arafat and maybe later Mahmoud Abbas?

ROSS: Well, he was, you know, he was a complex personality, to say the least. On the one hand he could go out of his way to be ingratiating with Palestinians, to be understanding of their predicament, to talk about their need for dignity. On the other hand, there was a fundamental distrust, and he would tell me, you know. He grew up with a very profound sense that your neighbors could be friendly to you at one moment and then they could literally stab you in the back at another.

And that was a kind of mindset that he brought to bear. When we were at Wye River in 1998, he would not shake Yasser Arafat's hand. On the other hand, he negotiated at Wye River with Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Masnan and Abu Allah. And he was extremely forthcoming to them on both the idea of an airport for the Palestinians and even a seaport within Gaza.

So he was someone who could be extremely pragmatic. He wouldn't shake Yasser Arafat's hand and yet when he became prime minister, he sent his son to see him in a backchannel and told him, now he's an older man you have to respect him, treat him with dignity. So there was a duality to Ariel Sharon. With those Palestinians he felt he could deal with, he was prepared to be quite responsive. Abu Allah, who was the lead Palestinian negotiator during the 1990s, he quickly created a bond with him and was prepared to, I think, negotiate quite seriously with him.

So he was a man who had, as I said, a kind of duality to him and you saw it oftentimes in terms of his broader behaviors as well.

SIMON: But what kind of figure do you think he winds up being in the history of Israel? There was certainly a time in the 1980s after the report on Sabra and Shatila when you wouldn't have thought he'd ever serve in parliament again, much less be prime minister. And then he becomes the prime minister.

ROSS: I think for a long time he sought to, in a sense, rebuild his image and to recoup from the Kahan Commission report that found him, at least not guilty by what he did actively, but by an act of omission, as opposed to commission. I do think that he saw himself at someone who had a responsibility to the state and I think he was someone who saw himself as wanting to be seen as a kind of giant figure in the history of that state, not simply because he wanted it as a kind of legacy, but because he felt, you know, he committed his life to it.

And, you know, I'm struck by the fact that when he became prime ministry, one of the things that he told people was, look, I'm not here just to occupy this seat; I'm here to do the things that will serve the long term well-being of the Jewish state. I think that was, you know, that was kind of an emblem for him and it guided him very much.

SIMON: Former U.S. ambassador Dennis Ross who spent many years in contact with Ariel Sharon. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.

ROSS: My pleasure.

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