Ariel Sharon was a Zionist, guided by a single mission — to protect the State of Israel. His mission was evident even as a young, 19-year-old company commander during the War of Independence in 1948, when he was severely wounded in the battle over Latrun. With a near-fatal shot in the abdomen, he was barely able to drag himself away from the battle zone to relative safety. At the hospital, the doctors told him he would need several weeks to recover. That night, Ariel Sharon got out of bed, dressed himself and hitchhiked back to his unit. He would not wait several weeks, nor days. He sensed that the recently declared State of Israel might not last that long. His place was with its defenders.
My first personal encounter with Sharon was in 1999, when he was head of the Likud Party, then in the opposition. I was a diplomat at the Israeli Consulate in New York. Sharon often visited the city, where Lili, his wife, was undergoing cancer treatment. He spent long, grueling hours at her bedside, yet always made himself available to us. I was greatly inspired by his profound sense of Jewish identity. “First and foremost, I am a proud Jew.” That is how he proudly presented himself to everyone he met.
I was struck by the fact that, unlike other politicians, and contrary to his own conduct in Israel, he never criticized his political rivals or advanced his own particular political interests while outside of Israel. Party politics were to be played at home. When abroad, Sharon represented the State of Israel with great pride.
He was a student, constantly seeking to incorporate all points of view on any given issue, yet he had the courage, resolve and integrity to make his own decisions and to firmly stand by them. I was fortunate to observe that process, participating in several meetings he held as prime minister, many of which would drag on for hours.
For me, perhaps the most inspiring feature of Ariel Sharon was his strong sense of loyalty to people, particularly those who fought alongside him in combat. He never forgot them — their names, their faces and their personal stories. No matter how high up the political ladder he climbed, he never left his friends behind. Loyalty was a two-way street for Ariel Sharon. He was always within reach for those who stood by him at the many junctures of his life. He took an active interest in their lives, and was always there for them and their families during times of need.
Israel’s 11th prime minister will be greatly missed. His legacy will remain with us forever. May his memory be blessed.
Yaron Sideman is the consul general of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region.