Shortly after the 1982 Lebanon War, I was in Israel with three retired, high-ranking American General Officers, including the former Chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the former Commander, US Air Forces Europe; and the former Commander in Chief, US Army, Europe. We traveled across the north, into Lebanon and up to the Beaufort Castle (from which the PLO had been shelling Israel). The highlight of our program was to be a meeting with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) schedule, however, showed the meeting late in the afternoon the day before the Kahan Commission investigating the Christian-perpetrated massacres at Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon.
Surely, I thought, he had better things to do than meet with us.
But he arrived on time, relaxed and very willing to talk. After the scheduled hour, I made a move to thank him and end the meeting. “Why are you in a hurry?” he thundered. I suggested he might need the time for other business. “I’m spending tomorrow answering questions for the Commission,” he said. “And I since already know what I did and didn’t do and since I am planning to tell the truth, I don’t need time to study.” We stayed another hour.
It was the first of my 29 trips to Israel escorting retired American Flag and General Officers; 23 of them included Ariel Sharon.
He was comfortable with and enjoyed the American military and he was on our schedule annually until 1991, when he was Minister of Housing. I noticed the omission by our hosts at the MOD, but thought our timing was just bad. Late one night, my Israeli cell phone (used exclusively for outgoing so no one had the number) rang. It was Gen. Sharon. “Where are you?” he said. “In Tel Aviv,” I replied. “Why aren’t you in my office?” he demanded. I said he wasn’t on the schedule, foolishly suggesting that perhaps the MOD thought that as Housing Minister, he would be less relevant to our group that year. “Housing IS security,” he boomed. He believed that. Houses – not just “settlements” – but houses and their residents, citizens ready to serve the state and grow the country, were as much a part of Israel’s security as soldiers on the borders. He chaired the Knesset Committee overseeing Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. More citizens, more houses, more security.
We were in his office the next day.
As Foreign Minister and then as Prime Minister, Gen. Sharon was a fixture in the program of the Flag and General Officers. He preferred to meet late, when his other work was done. He asked as many questions as he answered – and he answered many. He wanted to know about 9-11, about Afghanistan, and later about the war in Iraq and Saddam’s WMD (he believed Saddam had them). He talked about Iran, Hezbollah and the “peace process.” In 2002, we saw the first video and photographs from the PLO weapons ship the Karine-A, captured by Israeli commandos. In 2003, we saw photographs of suicide bombing victims that had never been released to the press. “The deceased are entitled to their privacy,” he said somberly.
In 2005 we discussed the Gaza disengagement at length. It was, as usual, late in the evening and we were leaving for the airport directly from his office. I had provided one of my participants with a gift to present on behalf of the group at the end of the meeting. When the time came, I nodded to the General, who rose and said, “We would like to thank you, sir…” That’s all he got out. Sharon said, relatively calmly, “Sit down. We’re not finished yet.” It is hard to rattle the Commander of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), but the General was rattled. He sat. I said, “We have to be at the airport soon, we’re leaving.” “I’ll tell you when you’re leaving,” he said tartly. “You have lots of time.”
And so we did; but he didn’t. It was our last meeting with General Sharon.
My great takeaways were first that national security is not just about soldiers and their equipment. There is a complex relationship between the military, the citizenry, the government, and the economy – national mood counts and confidence of the people in its government counts the most. And second, when someone smarter than you tells you he’ll let you know when the meeting is over, listen – you’ll learn more that way.