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10.19.09

Ariel Sharon's Twilight Zone

Too healthy to die, too injured to rule, Israel’s legendary warrior and former prime minister lives in a comatose limbo—just like the Middle East peace process. Lynn Sherr reports from Sharon's bedside on his physical state, his legacy and whether he'll ever wake up.

UPDATE 11/12/10: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was transferred to his home, a ranch in the Negev Desert, Friday after five years comatose in a hospital near Tel Aviv. The 82-year-old is able to breathe on his own but still needs to be fed through an I.V. Sharon’s home is now equipped with an elevator and other devices to aid his long-term care. After Sharon suffered a stroke five years ago, Ehud Olmert was elected as the new prime minister. Doctors say that Sharon’s age and the severity of the stroke make it very unlikely that he will ever regain consciousness.

In this Oct. 2009 piece, Lynn Sherr reports from Sharon's bedside on his physical state, his legacy and whether he'll ever wake up.

The old soldier’s eyes are open. Sometimes he’s propped up in front of a TV, where images of nature and animals, especially cows, flicker across the screen. His family tells him the day’s news, the goings on at his beloved farm. They read to him, alternating between two books at a time, just as he used to do for himself. They play classical music. When his white hair grows long, they trim it. And once in a while, when someone tells him to move a toe, he does.

Whether Ariel Sharon takes in any of this activity, no one knows for sure. Because Israel’s once-robust prime minister and legendary battlefield hero—the decorated warrior, the controversial hawk and finally, beginning in 2001, the centrist prime minister who transformed the political landscape—has been in a coma for nearly four years, felled by a massive stroke. While not brain-dead, the 81 year old exists in a persistent vegetative state. He generally breathes on his own, but must be fed by a tube. He cannot speak, walk, or think. Probably.

If Sharon hadn’t suffered a stroke? “I think we would have a Palestinian state,” says former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“There is a feeling of communication, of realization—I mean, the eyes are open and there is kind of, like, you feel that he feels your presence,” says Dr. Shlomo Segev, Sharon’s longtime personal physician and the head of the Institute of Medical Screening at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, just outside Tel Aviv, where Sharon has been hospitalized since May 2006. “So it’s not completely what we call a coma. Not a deep coma, for sure. But if you asked me to quantify that, I cannot.”

Dr. Segev is one of only four regular visitors to the former prime minister. The others are his son Omri, a former member of the Knesset who recently served four months in prison for a campaign finance scandal, and his son Gilad, who now runs the family farm, along with Gilad’s wife, Inbal. The family declined to be interviewed by The Daily Beast, but at least one of them visits every day— every day for nearly four years—at the high-tech medical center that looks like a college campus.

Wander in—as I did—through a bright, breezy lobby filled with recuperating patients, and you come to a small, institutional waiting room, where an Israeli soldier packing a rifle smilingly indicates that it would not be wise to go any further. Down the corridor, two Shin Bet guards protect his room; the staff provides regular physiotherapy. His blood pressure and heartbeat are fine, according to Dr. Segev. And “he looks about the same. You would recognize him.” He adds, with affection for his close friend, “He is a very, very healthy fat man.”

Too healthy to die, too injured to rule; he lives in limbo, just like the Israeli peace process. The irony is unavoidable. Ariel Sharon, who spent his early life expanding the territory of his native land, then abandoned his dream and evicted settlers from Gaza to shrink Israel’s borders in the quest for peace, remains locked inside the barest human boundaries, imprisoned in his own body. He was once so uncompromising—self-confident, supporters said—they called him The Bulldozer. Other names, too. “Arik, King of the Jews,” after his conquest of the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. “Murderer,” after failing to prevent the massacres of Lebanese civilians at the Sabra and Shatila camps in 1982. Sensitive and cultured. Stubborn and cruel. No one was ever neutral about Arik Sharon. Still true.

To many, including members of the left wing who embraced Sharon when he pulled out of Gaza, he was the modern father of the nation, ultimately creating his own Nixon-in-China moment as the first to accept a two-state solution.

“I don’t want to compare him to anybody else,” says Israeli President Shimon Peres, “but there was nobody as good as he was.” Peres, 85, who joined the centrist party Sharon founded, Kadima, after decades of fighting Sharon from Labor, adds, with amusement, “You could always expect from him the unexpected. [Moshe] Dayan said about him, ‘I prefer a galloping horse which is difficult to stop than a lazy mule that doesn’t know how to start moving.’”

Dov Weissglas, a savvy Tel Aviv attorney who became Sharon’s trusted chief of staff, recalls the days when Israel was “a teeny, tiny country, a weird strip on the map, with about a million miserable refugees from all over the world.” Because of Sharon, he says, “the whole nation regained its confidence, to successfully survive in this goddamn place in the world. He and his generation became a sort of manifestation that yes, we can live here, we can do it: We can overcome, we can retaliate. He became a myth.”

Or, an anathema.

“He is the largest vegetable in the country,” sneers Moshe Saperstein, an ousted Gaza settler and disabled war veteran who once taught Hebrew School in Brooklyn. Saperstein dissolves into tears when he compares the palmy oasis he and his wife, Rachel, built in the desert (then leveled so Palestinians couldn’t move in) to the plywood pre-fab where they now live temporarily. All because of Sharon: “We were betrayed by our own.” A different enmity comes from Ghassan Khatib, director of government media for the Palestinian Authority. From his office in Ramallah, in the West Bank, isolated from Jerusalem by checkpoints and the meandering “Separation Wall,” the soft-spoken, professor-turned-politician says “Sharon is perceived as the worst Israeli leader to the Palestinians.” The unilateral Gaza pullout, he says, undermined the Palestinian Authority’s power by “disregarding that there is a political partner on the other side. Sharon was doing the kind of things that would make the two states impossible.” To most in the region, however, he is simply forgotten. “It’s like a Greek tragedy, a tragic geschichte [story],” says Reuven Adler, Sharon’s close friend and media adviser, who repurposed the ruthless warrior as the nation’s grandpa for the 2001 campaign, with the winning slogan, "Only Sharon Can Bring Peace." Adler ticks off the misfortunes: Sharon’s first wife, Margalit, died in a car crash. Their young son, Gur, was killed in a gun accident. Sharon lost his second wife, Lily—Margalit’s sister—to cancer in 2000. And then there is Sharon himself. “He came to the top, the most popular person in Israel,” Adler tells me, “and then”—he pushes an imaginary button on the round glass table in his airy Tel Aviv advertising office—“then, he’s finished. Push the button, and that’s it.”

The last public image of Sharon was the grainy frame from a TV news camera on the night of January 3, 2006, showing his shock of white hair through the ambulance window as he arrived at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. A more revealing photograph followed the next day: Ehud Olmert, his designated deputy, looking drawn and distraught in the Cabinet Room, next to Sharon’s large, empty chair. One hundred days later, Sharon was declared permanently incapacitated, and Olmert got the big seat. Today, Olmert is on trial for corruption (amid reports of receiving “envelopes of cash”), having been replaced as prime minister by his longtime Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. The center is out. There is no left left. Peace negotiations are frozen.

So, what if Sharon were still in office? Might things be different?

“I think we would have a Palestinian state,” says former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling it “the logical conclusion” of the Bush administration roadmap. Eager to praise her old negotiating partner (“a tough little tank driver”), she also thinks Sharon would have pulled out considerably from the West Bank. “I do,” she insists. “Now, it would have required a Palestinian partner who was prepared to take half a loaf, not a full loaf, because nobody was going to get everything they wanted. But I think the terms were available, and maybe he was strong enough to lead a consensus in Israel and get it done.” “Sharon was somebody who could deliver,” she adds. “ You could trust him to do what he said he was going to do.”

Dov Weissglas agrees, but over tea in a Tel Aviv café clarifies the terms. “Look, he didn’t believe in peace in the sense of the U.S.-Canada relationship. He wasn’t in the business of, the Israeli ballet will start to perform in Ramallah. We’ll never have peace of that kind. But he believed in a need to bring an end to this constant friction between Israelis and Palestinians, to separate those two communities who were so unable to live together.”

He continues: “Deep in his heart he understood that our historic dream of having the land of Israel from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River had ended. He believed that territorial resolution with Palestinians was a must, that the land should somehow be divided between Israelis and Palestinians. To get separated is the name of the game. And he felt that a solution of this kind is very difficult for most Israelis to accept, that it can be done only by a leader of his magnitude. Because, as he said, ‘I’m the only one who can look into the eyes of the Israelis and tell them: OK, enough, we have agreed.’ ”

So he might have withdrawn settlements from the West Bank? “I cannot tell you specifically what he would do, because the security solution in the West Bank requires a different solution from Gaza. But he would start a process of realization and create a condition that, by the end of the day, Palestinians would start to assume responsibility for it, as they do now.” Pressed for details, Weissglas pauses. “The movie I was in was ended in January 2006,” he says, shrugging, “and all the rest I’m just guessing.”

He is one of the only local players who will even guess. This is, after all, the Middle East, whose turbulent history has generated a pragmatic ability to overcome loss.

“We live here in such a hectic time, that I don’t think we Israelis have time to think, What would Sharon do?” explains Shimon Shiffer, diplomatic columnist for Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. Shiffer forged a close relationship with the former prime minister, despite his scathing critiques during the war in Lebanon. And while he misses his friend’s “sense of humor and his wisdom and his courage,” he says, “I’m not sure it’s possible to assess how he would behave.” On the other hand, Shiffer continues, “One thing Mr. Sharon shares with the late Yitzhak Rabin, they belong to a generation of huge characters. The new generation of Israeli politicians, they look like dwarves when you compare them. Sharon had the possibility to lead the Israelis anywhere; you don’t have that with Netanyahu or Olmert or [Tzipi] Livni.”

That’s the political reality; here’s the psychological. Sharon’s condition—“alive and not alive” in one friend’s words—is especially frustrating because it suspended not only his ability to function, but the nation’s chance to reflect on his legacy. Without the finality of a funeral, how do you mourn—or celebrate? How do you move on when you haven’t said goodbye?

“You learn to live in uncertainty,” explains Dr. Lea Baider, an expert on bereavement therapy and professor of medical psychology at Hadassah University Hospital. “In Israel at any time there can be another war. So we learn to live in constant uncertainty. Life continues. This is a reality. And one has to face reality in order to continue living.”

For Dan Halutz, the eminent air force commander who served as Sharon’s chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, that doesn’t mean putting Sharon out of his thoughts. “I don't know if he’s part of the national dialogue,” he tells me, “But no doubt he's part of the national heart. Myself? No doubt that I’m thinking about him. He's part of the history of our nation.”

Dr. Segev won’t predict how long Sharon can last. “He used to tell me about his mother and his grandmother, all these ladies they lived forever—I mean, the age of 90-something,” Dr. Segev says. “And he used to tell me that he's going to survive for years. He promised me that.”

So will he ever wake up? “He’s an exceptional man,” the doctor says. “And you know, there are what you call miracles and we call statistics. Some people have awakened after a very few years. But I have to be honest, it happened with younger people. On the other hand, I haven't seen many people in such a state survive for so long at his age. I know that his son Gilad believes he can wake up and some people in the staff, but really nobody knows. I don't know.”

In his autobiography, Warrior, Ariel Sharon writes that “political life is like a big wheel, constantly turning. At times you are up, at times down. But always the wheel keeps moving.” Throughout his career the wheel revolved, restoring Sharon to power when he seemed most defeated. Today, the wheel is at rest. Just when Israeli politics could use a jump-start, The Bulldozer is no longer in the driver’s seat.

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.