The Israeli Patient Searching for Ariel Sharon's Political Legacy
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has now been in a coma for almost five years. But his presence still looms over the country's political course. Would he have ultimately made peace with the Palestinians? Those who knew him best provide some answers.
Seated on the terrace of the Dubnov Restaurant in Tel Aviv, he resembles his father. There is a thick bulge of flesh where his neck ought to be and his massive stomach is engaged in a running battle with the edge of the table. His face is as round as a pita bread. Omri Sharon, 46, places little value on appearances. An old T-shirt is stretched across his midriff, he is wearing old sandals on his otherwise bare feet and he carries a pistol strapped into his waistband.
His body language is defensive. And he doesn't want to talk, particularly not with journalists. And no, he doesn't want to talk about his father, either. He is more soft-spoken than one would expect, like his father, whose raspy voice never quite fit his massive physical presence.
Omni Sharon's mobile phone rings. The caller asks about a signature, something related to a legal matter. Two years ago, Sharon spent several months in prison after being convicted of collecting illegal donations to his father's election campaign in 1999. Prosecutors are investigating again, against both sons this time -- and again they are looking into allegations of suspicious campaign donations for the senior Sharon.
It isn't just his two sons to whom Ariel Sharon left behind a difficult legacy when he had a severe stroke and fell into a coma almost five years ago. To this day, the entire country is living with the consequences of a policy that the former prime minister began but was never able to end. It was Sharon who ordered the construction of the security wall, which was designed to protect Israel against acts of terror but also anticipated a possible border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. Then he withdrew the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, a move that was soon followed by the Islamist group Hamas' assumption of power in the coastal region.
Classic Music and News Broadcasts
Sharon, who is now 82, has been lying in a coma for the last 53 months at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer east of Tel Aviv. The hospital's rehabilitation center is in the eastern section of the enormous campus. On the second floor, to the right of the nurses' station, is a door with a guard sitting in front of it.
At first, anyone who entered Sharon's room had to wear a surgical mask, gloves and sterile clothing. But his immune system has stabilized since then. A condition like bronchitis is no longer life-threatening for Sharon, who can now be treated with antibiotics. Nevertheless, only a handful of people visit him. His sons have been successful at keeping him isolated. In fact, not a single photo of the famous patient has even been released to the public.
Sharon is in a light coma. He is breathing independently and is fed through a gastric feeding tube. He has kept his considerable weight, and has even gained a little weight. There are times when he sleeps and times when he is awake, his eyes open. The television set, usually tuned to a National Geographic channel, is on when he is awake. The nurses and visitors play him classical music and, of course, news broadcasts.
The sons, who visit him for several hours every day, hope that he will eventually wake and be able to sit in a chair and see his grandchildren. The doctors are more skeptical. Still, in the next few weeks Sharon, after spending almost five years in the hospital, will be moved home to his beloved ranch on the northern edge of the Negev Desert.
'We Aren't Giving Up Hope'
George W. Bush was still the president of the United States when Ariel Sharon fell into a coma on Jan. 4, 2006. In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel had been in power for two months. And in Israel, there were several indications that the old warhorse Sharon, of all people, could bring about a long-desired peace with the country's Palestinian neighbors. "It's obvious how much the country misses him," says his son Omri. Do the brothers believe that their father will emerge from the coma? "We aren't giving up hope."
After Sharon fell into a coma, the Kadima Party, which he had founded, became the strongest faction in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Kadima could not prevent the election of Sharon's former fellow Likud Party member Benjamin Netanyahu to prime minister. Nevertheless, Sharon's statement that the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories was ultimately an "occupation" set off a dynamic that finally forced Netanyahu to accept the two-state solution -- at least rhetorically.
No matter what decisions Sharon's successors have made in the last five years, the question as to what the former premier would have done has always loomed. When he was in office, Sharon himself hardly ever commented publicly on his motives, and he was silent on the steps he planned to take after the Gaza withdrawal. The retired general and veteran of the Six-Day War was always skeptical toward the media.
But what kind of a person was Ariel Sharon? Would he have been prepared to accept a Palestinian nation? Would he have been the one to overcome the mutual blockade? Or was his withdrawal from Gaza merely an attempt to reduce international pressure on Israel and save the Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Finally, what are the chances that he will emerge from the coma? Four people who have had close relationships with Sharon for many years offer some answers: a good friend from his days in the army, his secretary, his key political advisor and his personal doctor.