Israel will recover from loss of Sharon, but he will be missed

Prime Minister Sharon’s hospitalization due to a massive stroke has been very difficult for Israelis on both a personal and national level. It is due both to his stature in the eyes of many Israelis, but also to the circumstances of his hospitalization. I cannot recall a similar situation when a high profile head-of-state has been incapacitated without any clear indications for their future condition, and at such a sensitive and dramatic time.

Over the years I have had several opportunities to see and hear Prime Minister Sharon. I was always struck by the difference between his distinctive public media persona, and his private ability to personally charm those he met. It is difficult for the media to deal with such a multifaceted historic figure.

I first met Ariel Sharon many years before he was a prime minister or even a Cabinet minister. I grew up in Rehovot, which was also home to the Sharon family. Sharon’s son Omri and I attended the same school and we both participated in the same youth movement.

Once, Ariel Sharon joined us on a field trip to Latrun, where he had been wounded in 1948. He talked about his personal experience in that battle. For Israeli teenagers in 1976, it was Israel’s history coming alive through the eyes of a world-renowned general. It is interesting that even today Sharon remains a renowned general, but since then he has also gained recognition as a world-class statesman.

The citizens of Israel are saddened by Prime Minister Sharon’s condition and we pray for his speedy and full recovery. These prayers are recited with intent by observant Jews in Jerusalem, secular Jews in Tel Aviv, Israelis removed from Gaza and the northern West Bank last August, Christian citizens in Nazareth, and Muslim citizens of Abu Gosh. Indeed, people the world over are saddened by this turn of events, even if they disagreed with Sharon’s policies. Our San Francisco consulate has received dozens of emails, phone calls and faxes expressing their wishes for a full recovery.

After Prime Minister Sharon fell ill, Israel’s democratic mechanisms went into effect smoothly and Israel continues to be both politically and economically stable. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, an experienced statesman who entered the Knesset in 1973 and who served a decade as mayor of Jerusalem, is now fulfilling his duties as acting prime minister.

Olmert has great experience dealing with economic matters as he currently serves as both the finance minister and minister of labor, industry and trade. He is also deeply involved with security and foreign affairs, serving as deputy prime minister and as a longtime close adviser to Sharon. The government is in capable hands and will continue to operate until the next elections in March.

As I try to make sense of what the future may hold, I can’t help but think about my encounter with Sharon at Latrun. Interestingly, Sharon went back to Latrun as prime minister in 2003, 27 years later, and first declared his acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state. That declaration, made by the ultimate battlefield tactician, can be summed up in one word: leadership.

Over the last five years, Sharon won over the population to his new views by skillfully using his background and personality. His combination of strategic determination and steadfastness, combined with the courage to change his views and chart a new dramatic direction, earned Sharon respect and support both within Israel and abroad.

On March 28, Israelis will return to the polls to elect a new government. Based on the number of votes each party receives, a government coalition will be formed with the only certainty being that the fate of the country is entirely up to Israel’s citizens. No matter Sharon’s medical condition at that point, there is no doubt that his leadership impact will be felt.

David Akov is consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest region.