jerusalem | Nearly six years ago, then–Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke that sent him into a permanent comalike state. A year-and-a-half later, his youngest son, Gilad, started working on “Sharon: The Life of a Leader.”
Published this week, the 640-page book gives us a sense of the personal life of one of Israel’s most private leaders. It begins with the death of Sharon’s oldest son, Gur, in a gun accident in 1967, only months after Gilad was born.
“He was almost 11, and it was without a doubt the event that most affected me, my family and our home,” Gilad Sharon writes. “I relate the astounding fact that my father did not do harm to himself to the fact that he still had two children and a wife. Otherwise how much suffering can a person take — and for what? I say this despite his strength and fortitude, qualities my father possessed in huge measure.”
He also quotes his father as saying, “The pain’s intensity is not diminished by the years; it’s only the intervals between the stabbings that grow longer.”
The strength of the book is how it humanizes a controversial politician through myriad personal details about his life.
For example, we learn that Ariel Sharon, who was intensely connected to his farm in the Negev Desert, asked for updated information every time a calf was born — and that those notes were slipped to him by aides during Cabinet meetings and often cheered him up.
Also, the book reveals, he liked to set the table for the Passover seder every year, and he had a deep, romantic love with his second wife, Lily, the sister of his first wife, Margalit, who died in a car accident in 1962.
Gilad Sharon writes how his mother, Lily, was always trying to get his father to go on a diet and, at the same time, preparing fattening Hungarian specialties like blintzes with raisins.
The book falters, however, when it glosses over Ariel Sharon’s role in controversial incidents.
In 1982, for example, during the Lebanon War, when Sharon was defense minister, Christian troops under Israeli control massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. After the war, an internal Israeli commission found Sharon indirectly responsible and forced him to step down.
Gilad Sharon writes that the Israeli army stopped the Phalangist killings as soon as they knew about them, downplaying his father’s responsibility.
“Sad and unsettling but such is Lebanon,” he writes. “This was not the first, nor would it be the last, massacre in Lebanon. The 20th century was riddled with ethnic massacres in Lebanon … the murders in Sabra and Shatilla were not out of the ordinary in the blood-soaked history of this fractured country.”
The book is caustic about Palestinian leaders and some Israeli politicians, labeling Yasser Arafat a “terrorist” and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar,” for example.
Gilad Sharon also writes that it was originally his idea to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. His father, known by many as the “bulldozer,” was the architect of Israel’s settlement movement that today has more than 300,000 Jews living in the West Bank.
The book also gives details of Sharon’s medical condition for the first time in several years. Gilad Sharon told the New York Times last week that “when he is awake, he looks at me and moves fingers when I ask him to. I am sure he hears me.”
Sharon ends his book with a description of his father as he is today, in a vegetative state since his stroke on Jan. 4, 2006.
“We visit every day, haven’t missed once,” he writes. “He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly. Large, strong, self-assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he’s awake he looks out with a penetrating stare. He hasn’t lost a single kilogram, on the contrary, he’s gained some.”
Gilad Sharon will appear in conversation with Middle East analyst and journalist Linda Gradstein, NPR’s Israel correspondent from 1990 to 2009, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. www.jccsf.org.
“Sharon: The Life of a Leader” by Gilad Sharon (640 pages, Harper, $29.99)