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An Interview with Dror Moreh

The director talks about his film, 'Sharon," which will be screened tonight in San Jose

Anyone who ever encountered Ariel Sharon is left with an image that betrays conventional wisdom. To many in the Arab world, he was the "Butcher of Beirut," big-headed, belligerent, and brutal. It was this very image that served as the basis of Time Magazine's controversial assertion that he was directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre—an assertion ruled false by an American court—or why another court in Belgium was prepared to try him as a war criminal. But even in the Israeli media he was often portrayed as an opportunistic politician, whose ill-considered jaunt on the contested Temple Mount with an escort of over 1,000 Israeli police launched the Second Intifada.

Which is why it is all the more startling that anyone who ever met Sharon has a very different image of him. I met him at least twice, and I most recall his smile and his stomach, so very different from the iconographic photos of a bandaged Israeli commander, standing with his troops at the Suez Canal. Yet even now when I remember Sharon, I immediately think of the Hartzufim, a popular Israeli political comedy, based on Britain's Spitting Image. Who can forget that corpulent puppet—a beardless Santa in a business suit—with his trademark call of "Ho hooooo!" (that's two ho's, as opposed to Santa's three)?

Sharon was all of these, but he was also none of these, because each of these images portrays a single aspect of a complex man, larger than life, whose story, for better or for worse, has so many of the features of a classic Greek tragedy. This is the man that Israeli director Dror Moreh captures in his documentary film Sharon, which will be screening at 7:30 pm, November 10, at Camera 12 in San Jose, as part of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.

Moreh, who also coproduced the film, had unusual access to Sharon and the people who surrounded him in the final, most critical stage of his career. He was cinematographer for the election campaign that brought Sharon's Likud Party to power in 2001. While doing this, he followed Sharon and his entourage through all the major campaign events, but he also filmed Sharon in his most intimate, on his beloved farm in southern Israel.

What's interesting is that while he was doing this, Moreh was not an ardent fan of "Arik," as Sharon was commonly called by the press and the Israeli public. In fact, Moreh identified—and continues to identify—with the left wing of the Israeli political spectrum, the very people who were terrified of a possible Sharon victory.

"Sharon is one of the most fascinating historical figures in Israel," he told me. "After his victory in the '73 war, people cheered him as 'Arik King of Israel,' but nine years later, after Sabra and Shatilla, he was vilified by all but the far right. For years he was a hero of the settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza, but rejected by much of the Israeli mainstream." I thought back to where I first encountered Sharon—in the dark alleyways of the casbah in occupied Hebron, during the heyday of the settler movement.

"Once Sharon became prime minister," Moreh continues, "he underwent an insane transformation." Change and transformation were two words that came up again and again in my chat with Moreh. "He was ready to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, even if it meant painful concessions, even if it meant giving up the land he'd fought for and tearing down the very settlements that he was so instrumental in building."

"People usually remember how Sharon evacuated all the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip [in September 2005]," Moreh continued, "but by that point just about everyone realized that Israel had to get out of Gaza. What they forget is that Sharon also dismantled four Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, and that if the Palestinians responded positively to this, he was ready to take it a step further and perhaps even to dismantle more settlements. He believed that he was the only person who could determine the permanent boundaries of the State of Israel—without the Occupied Territories. He was willing to take responsibility for this, and for every other decision he made as prime minister. Once he assumed that ultimate position of power, he refused to play all the little games that characterize most politicians. 'The buck stops here,' he used to say, quoting the famous sign on Truman's desk."

I asked Moreh why Sharon is still vilified today. He didn't think he is. "The fact is that the response to Sharon is far from homogeneous. The Talmud says: 'Where the penitent stand, even the righteous cannot stand.' World leaders came to realize that Sharon was a 'penitent.' By undergoing such an abrupt transformation, Sharon had redeemed himself, even to his harshest critics, even to the Arab world. He may not have been forgiven for all that he did in the past, but they were ready to work with him. They knew that he, more than anyone, had the courage that it takes to move things forward. That is why, when he spoke at the UN, all the European leaders rushed to shake his hand." I wasn't convinced, so he started to outline the history of Sharon's evolution, as it appears in his film.

"[Prime Minister Ehud] Barak had destroyed the peace process. After the failed Camp David talks with Yasser Arafat, he returned to Israel and announced to the country that 'We have no partner for peace,' and that a violent clash with the Palestinians was inevitable. Then Sharon was elected. Two weeks later he told President Bush that he would be willing to take the bold steps necessary to create a new reality in the Middle East. He was prepared to take down settlements as far back as then."

"There are two issues here," Moreh continued. "The first is that in this fast-paced, media-driven world, people want to hear soundbytes, not some lengthy explanation. They want to be able to catalogue people and ideas instantly into black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. The problem is that conflicts, especially Middle Eastern conflicts, can't be pigeonholed like that. The problem is that the news media doesn’t take the time to delve into those complexities." I immediately thought of Jon Stewart a few weeks ago, riffing on CNN's famous line, "We'll have to leave it there." As John Stewart asked: "You have 24 hours in a day! How much more time do you need?"

"Then there is the fact that Sharon spent most of his adult life as a soldier, and war inevitably leads to mistakes. The Israeli army has made many mistakes, under all its generals, including Sharon. It's the nature of the beast, just like the U.S. made and continued to make many mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan with the support of its European allies. The challenge is to rise above those mistakes, to correct them, and to put a stop to them. That is what Sharon began to do by recognizing the rights of the Palestinian people."

Many people in Israel claim that only the right wing parties can make peace. People were terrified when Begin came to power, but he ended up returning the Sinai to Egypt and negotiating Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab State. I asked Moreh if he felt that was true of Sharon as well.

"There's no doubt that Sharon was willing and able to bear the burden of doing what was necessary in order to arrive at some modus vivendi with the Palestinians. But it wasn't a question of him being aligned with the right or the left. Actually, the spirit of the Mapai Party [the precursor to Israel's Labor Party] flowed in his veins, and the positions he took were actually quite far to the left of Labor Party leadership in the 1970s. What set Sharon apart was that he was a genuine leader with real moral authority to make decisions that were needed. Left or right, there are no real leaders left. He was the last of the giants."

Describing those decisions, he added: "People tend to think that Sharon was headstrong, and that he made his decisions on the spur of the moment. People called him a "bulldozer." In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. He took a long time before deciding anything, consulted with people, and considered what other people had done throughout history. But once he finally made up his mind, even if that meant he had changed his mind from one extreme to the other, he proceeded without hesitation—even if he had to rein in his own instincts. It took him a long time before he could even utter the term, 'Palestinian state,' but once he did, he said it with the confidence of a leader. He got up and he said to his colleagues and the public, 'People, we are occupiers!' And the people listened."

Why did they listen to him? Just a few years earlier, Yitzhak Rabin, another giant, also tried to make concessions, and he was mowed down by an assassin's bullet at a peace demonstration, of all places.

"Sharon had a rare gift of charisma, and this was recognized even by his greatest rivals. One of them," said Moreh, "Asaf Shariv, the current consul in New York, had long been identified with the Israeli left. Nevertheless, he told me that he would dive on a grenade if it would save Sharon's life. Sure he had his fatal flaws, like the hero of any Greek tragedy, and in some way perhaps these flaws did him in, but he was also marked by greatness. What stands out about Sharon is that he was a man of contradictions. He was, first and foremost, a fighter, a warrior, but he also loved poetry. He was truly larger than life: he was often described as grandiose. But he also had a rich sense of humor and a genuine feeling of warmth for everyone he met."

To illustrate that humor and warmth, Moreh told me a story about Sharon that never made it into the film. One day at a cabinet meeting, a woman came in to serve the ministers their tea, but one senior minister scolded her because the tea was lukewarm. Sharon noticed, even if no one else did. Twenty minutes later, he started telling a story about a battle he was in during the War of Independence. He had just been wounded in the stomach during the fierce fighting at Latrun, so he and an adjutant tried to crawl to safety. They made their way in the hot afternoon across the bodies of their Jewish comrades and the Arab Legionnaires they were fighting, but it had taken them hours. They were thirsty, and when they finally came across a pool of water, they dived in and began to refresh themselves. Only after they had started to drink, did they notice the body of a dead Legionnaire sprawled in the water beside them. "So what did I do?" Sharon asked the ministers. "I kept on drinking, and let me tell you. Only after you've had water seasoned with the blood of a dead enemy can you truly appreciate the tea we were just served."

Although he has disappeared from the headlines, Arik Sharon is not dead. In January 2006, he suffered a stroke, probably brought on by his obesity and high cholesterol, and has been lingering in a coma ever since. In some ways this reminded me of Ronald Reagan, a hero to so many Americans, who spent the last years of his life withering away from Alzheimer's disease. I asked Moreh about this: "In his book, Tear Down This Myth, Will Bunch argues that much of the myth of Ronald Reagan is just that—a myth—that the Ronald Reagan that so many Americans look back on so fondly is far removed from the Ronald Reagan of history. He is remembered as a hawk, but he also withdrew American forces from Lebanon after the barracks bombing of 1983 and kidnappings of 1984, because he finally concluded, as his economic adviser Bruce Bartlett later wrote, 'that you cannot undo a mistake by continuing to make it. All you can do is stop making the mistake, cut your losses and move on.' Is it possible," I went on, "that a similar mythology could emerge around Sharon—one that he cannot challenge?"

Moreh did not think so. He stressed again that what was most important about Sharon's life was not all the events, great and small, that happened before he became prime minister but the change that took place in those very last years, when he finally realized that force is not the answer to everything—that it has its limitations. It was this final realization in the twilight of his life that consummated everything that came before it and transformed Sharon's story from the epic tale of an unrepentant warrior into the saga of a long and arduous quest in search of coexistence. While Reagan's story follows a straight path, Sharon's is marked by a remarkable turning point just as he reached the pinnacle of power. In some way, Sharon was like Moses, climbing to the heights to see the Promised Land lain—only to find out that it wasn't the same Promised Land that he'd spent his whole life struggling to achieve. And unlike Moses, Arik had no Joshua to lead the people there after he was gone. "Even the left still misses his leadership," said Moreh.

But is there really no one? I know Dror Moreh through Philippa Kowarsky, a close friend and colleague, who is also co-producer, together with Arte, of Dror's upcoming film, The Gatekeepers. In that film, Dror interviews all the surviving heads of Israel's Secret Service and finds that, despite minor differences between them, they all agree that the time has come to make painful concessions in order to reach peace with the Palestinians. Ironically, these are the very same people behind such controversial policies as targeted assassinations and the interrogation through torture of thousands of Palestinians.

Yaakov Peri was one of these men. In a 2003 interview he said: "It is interesting that everyone—heads of the Secret Service, former chiefs-of-staff, veteran security officers—became flag-bearers of reconciliation with the Palestinians. Why is that? Because we were there; we know both sides: the material, the people, the terrain." It was at about this time that Prime Minister Sharon began to plan Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. Could men like Peri—real generals, not armchair generals, who understand the brutality and futility of war—be the key to peace?

I thought back on my first encounter with Sharon in the winding casbah of Hebron two and a half decades ago. I remember the settlers hoisting him in the air—no easy task—and singing, "Arik King of Israel will live for ever and ever!" Many of those very same settlers would later lead the protests against him during the withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria. It's hard to imagine, but maybe one of them will lead us to peace. If there is one thing we can learn from Sharon, it's that salvation sometimes comes from the least expected quarters.

Today Arik King of Israel is lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Gaza has since erupted in flames, and peace seems as remote as ever. But as Dror Moreh's film Sharon shows, it just takes one bold man with a vision to change that, in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afganistan, America, or anywhere.