Sharon: From Soldier to 'Man of Peace'

Former general Ariel Sharon moved to the political center in a bid to secure Israel's future. His goals were to preserve a Jewish majority and to hold Jerusalem, according to Martin Indyk, a former U.S. envoy to Israel.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Ambassador Martin Indyk worked with Ariel Sharon for more than 10 years, both before and after Mr. Sharon became prime minister. Mr. Indyk was the US ambassador to Israel twice, from 1995 to 1997 and 2000 to 2001. He was also assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs and now directs the Saban Center at Brookings Institution. Mr. Indyk joins us from Sydney, Australia.

Ambassador, thanks very much for being with us.

MARTIN INDYK: My pleasure. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And President Bush has described Ariel Sharon as a man of peace. How do you see the man that now lies gravely ill in a hospital bed in Jerusalem?

INDYK: I think he would find it ironical to be called a man of peace, because Ariel Sharon was not a man who believed much in peace. He was very skeptical of Palestinian intentions and remained so up until this point, and I think his focus, particularly in the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the setting up of this new party to take new steps in the West Bank in terms of territorial withdrawal--his purpose was something other than peace. It was to ensure the longevity of the Jewish state. He felt the responsibility on his shoulders and the shoulders of his generation for that objective, and his purpose in what I think he expected would have been his last term in office after this coming election, was to ensure that Israel had a robust Jewish majority and Jerusalem in its hands for eternity, and that was his basic purpose, and that's what the people of Israel, at least that center ground that you referred to, were looking to him to complete.

SIMON: Now to explain this a little more, was that the--what some people referred to over the years as the demographic time bomb, that if Israel kept control of a substantial part of the occupied territories, it would have an Arab majority population and it wouldn't be possible to be a Jewish state and a democracy when most of your citizens were Arabs?

INDYK: Right, and I think Ariel Sharon came to understand--and by the way, Ehud Olmert played an important role in convincing him of this--that the demographic threat that you just described was more important these days to Israel's survival and well-being than the conventional threat that Sharon as an infantry general had done so much to deal with in his time in the military, and that Sharon as politician had done so much to try to defend against that conventional threat by setting up those settlements that he referred to as his settlements on the high ground in the West Bank, but now beyond the fence and wall that he's been building to separate Israel from the Palestinians.

SIMON: Would Israeli pr--before he ever became prime minister, would Israeli prime ministers turn to him when they needed something tough and disagreeable and even unpopular done?

INDYK: Well, the obvious example of that was Prime Minister Begin, when he completed the peace treaty with Egypt and committed to withdraw fully from the Sinai Peninsula, turned to his then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon, to evacuate the settlements in the Sinai at the place called Yamit. And that was the first time and, by the way, the last time before the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, that any Israeli settlements were evacuated. In other words, Ariel Sharon is the only political leader in Israel who has been responsible for evacuating settlements, both for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Because he had credibility on the right, because he was one of the fathers of the central movement, he was able to confront the right wing in Israel that opposed the evacuation of any settlements at all, and he was the only prime minister to do so. Not Rabin, not Barak, not Peres and not--certainly not Netanyahu were capable of doing what Sharon has done.

SIMON: In the minute we have left, Ariel Sharon was once identified with the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, had to leave public life for inadvertent responsibility for that. It was his visit to the Temple Mount, also known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, that provoked a second intifada. Did you see an evolution in Ariel Sharon, the man who became prime minister and exercised this judgment this year?

INDYK: Yes. I think when he became prime minister, he moved from an opposition mode--even when he was in government for a lot of the time he was in an opposition mode, particularly as foreign minister against Bibi Netanyahu, who was prime minister. But when he became prime minister, I felt--and I worked with him for the first six months of his term as prime minister--that he had this sense of responsibility. He looked at Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu, the previous prime ministers, as irresponsible--he used that word with me--that he was the one...

SIMON: Am...

INDYK: ...who would deal with the terrorism and bring Israel to a more stable situation.

SIMON: Ambassador Indyk, thank you very much for being with us, from Sydney, Australia, today to speak about Ariel Sharon.

It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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