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Hunting for Ariel Sharon

From the desert ranches of southern Israel to the hospitals of Tel Aviv, it took being ignored, dismissed and eventually detained by Israeli intelligence to catch a glimpse of Israel’s former leader.

September 16, 2010 | 12:44 pm

Sycamore Ranch: Benjamin Joffe-Walt / TML Photos

Sycamore Ranch: Benjamin Joffe-Walt / TML Photos

In the illustrative children’s cartoons, “Where’s Waldo?”, readers are asked to feast their eyes on a confusing, highly unrealistic scene to find a lankly, ridiculous-looking little man in a striped red shirt named ‘Waldo’, or, if you’re a Brit, ‘Wally’. Many of the illustrations contain a number of ‘red herrings’: red and white objects deceptively similar to Waldo, but are not actually Waldo.

Finding Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel and arguably the Jewish state’s most influential leader in the last 15 years, is a similar task.

The search begins on Google. Almost a dozen books have been written about Sharon. There are hundreds of eulogy-like profiles; thousands of articles about the stroke that ended his political career; and tens of thousands of blogs and Twitter messages speculating about his state since.

Some say he rests at his Sycamore Ranch in Israel’s southern Negev desert. Others say he is still in the Tel Hashomer Hospital outside Tel Aviv. Some say he has been transferred to the intensive care unit and is on his last breath. Rumors on Twitter last month even claimed he had died.

Mostly, though, the mainstream Israeli media says very little about the country’s former leader.

“There is certainly a degree of caution, perhaps too much caution, as to what we write and how we write about him,” says Ran Revnik, the lead writer at the Israeli health journal Menta. “It’s not exactly taboo, but the situation is a bit bizarre, because there is a prime minister who is not with us yet he didn’t die, so it’s a bit out of the box.”

“I also think there is just nothing to write,” Revnik adds. “When there were changes in his condition we wrote about it, but now he’s a vegetable. What is there to say?”

Sharon, a provocateur for most of his life, is a legend of Israeli military and political history whom former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once referred to as “the bad guy who seemingly looks forward to a war.”

Sharon first rose to fame as a platoon commander during Israel’s War of Independence, then as the head of Israel’s first special forces unit, responsible for the 1953 Qibya massacre, which resulted in over 65 civilian deaths and massive destruction in the Arab village. Sharon became a national hero during the 1973 Yom Kippur War by crossing the Suez Canal, but was later forced to resign as defense minister after being found personally but indirectly responsible for the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre during the 1982 Lebanon war.

Ten years ago this month Sharon famously ascended Jerusalem’s Temple Mount escorted by 1,000 police officers a few days ahead of what became the Second Intifada and was a prominent patron of the movement to build Jewish communities in the territories captured in the 1967 War. As prime minister, however, Sharon led the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

That all ended in December 2005, when Sharon suffered a minor stroke. He was hospitalized for two days and prescribed anticoagulant (blood thinning) medication.

He was quite popular in Israel at the time.

Then, on January 4, 2006, Sharon suffered a second, massive stroke while at his ranch. He was taken by ambulance to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, where he underwent two separate operations for a total of 21 hours and placed in an induced coma.

On the night of his stroke Sharon was declared “temporarily incapable of discharging his powers” and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took over the reins of government. Within a few months Israel held elections and Olmert won handily, officially replacing Sharon.

As Israel went through notable political turmoil during the intermittent transition, the local press was full of scandals regarding his care after it was revealed that Sharon had been prescribed blood thinners after his first stroke despite him being diagnosed with a brain disorder known as cerebral amyloid angiopathy. Patients with the disease are known to have a significantly elevated risk of cerebral hemorrhage if they take blood thinners.

Medical experts believe Sharon lost all his cognitive abilities during the stroke and that he is in a permanent vegetative state with little chance of waking up.

But in April 2007, Sharon’s son Omri told Israel’s Channel 10 News that his father was able to respond to verbal stimulation with a slight tightening of his hand.

Once famous for his size, Sharon is now fed through a feeding tube and is said to weigh some 110 pounds. Due to immune deficiency his medical caretakers do not allow anyone to visit him, save the occasional visit by his sons.

The search continues with Dov Weisglass, former chief-of-staff to then-Prime Minister Sharon, now a lawyer in Tel Aviv.

“As a matter of strict principle, the family will not speak with anyone, or allow any visitors,” he warns. “His sons made a decision, right or wrong, that they do not cooperate with the media whatsoever. It’s nothing personal.”

I get the beeper number for Gilad Sharon, the former prime minister’s son, from an acquaintance. ‘Who still uses a beeper?’ I think to myself, and send Gilad a message.

Two days later, while out at a bar, I get a call.

“Hi, Benjamin?” the caller says.

“Yes,” I say.

“This is Gilad.”

“Which Gilad?” I say, not yet recalling that I had sent the son of Israel’s former leader a beep over 48 hours ago.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Apparently it’s the wrong number.”

Dial tone…

Getting nowhere, I head to Sharon’s famous Sycamore Ranch, which sits less than four miles from the northeastern border of the Gaza Strip just outside the city of Sderot.

Colorfully covered Asian workers sweat in the fields and endless rows of citrus trees are lined up in sandy, light soil.

Sharon spent most of his free time in this pastoral valley. During his time as prime minister, he would retreat to the ranch on Fridays with an entourage of his closest advisers, a group which came to be known as “The Ranch Forum”, a reference to their influence over the country’s most important decisions.

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