Ariel Sharon's trip home triggers memories of firm hand

Ariel Sharon at ranch Sharon never groomed a successor

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Ariel Sharon always said he wanted to go home to his Sycamore Ranch, and spend his time tending his sheep and cows.

He said it throughout his two decades of dogged fighting for rehabilitation after the disastrous Lebanon War in 1982. He said it after he unexpectedly became the leader of the opposition in 1999. And he said it throughout his five years as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006.

He never exactly meant it. What he really wanted was to stay in politics, preferably at the top of politics, forever.

He kept recounting the remarkable longevity of his mother's family. He never groomed a successor. He projected an affable disdain for most of the younger politicians who vied for his job (and an unaffable contempt for Benjamin Netanyahu, who now has it).

But harping on about the ranch was his way of cocking a snook at his many rivals, as if to signal: I've got another life, another love, beyond politics.

Radiating power

When, in 2004-5, he battled to convince a recalcitrant Likud Party and a sceptical parliament to support his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a sliver of the West Bank, he would sit up in his eyrie, gaze out on his fields, and write his polemical speeches in laborious longhand.

Ariel Sharon's ranch Sharon gazed out over the fields from the top of the house

Now, almost five years after a stroke felled him from the pinnacle of power and popularity and condemned him to vegetative existence in a sterile hospital room, he is back at the ranch.

At dawn on Friday, an ambulance escorted by a fleet of security cars ferried him from the hospital near Tel Aviv to his first weekend at home. It is only a visit. He is attended by hospital staff, and is to go back to hospital next week. But if the medical and physical logistics are judged satisfactory, Sharon will soon return home permanently.

His doctors have never endorsed his two sons' insistent belief that he does respond to stimuli and may yet awaken. They explained, nevertheless, that the familiar home environment - one son, with his wife and children, lives on the ranch - may yet have a salubrious effect on his condition.

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There is no discussion of ending his life - euthanasia is illegal in Israel, and anyway, Sharon breathes unassisted”

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As throughout his illness, he was carefully screened from prying eyes and cameras throughout the hour-long trip and transfer.

There is an understandable awkwardness in the way Sharon's long illness is covered by the press in Israel and followed by the public. People naturally want to know all the details.

And yet, there is a reticence - out of sympathy, out of embarrassment, perhaps out of the haunting incongruity between the memory of this vast, hulking man who radiated power, and the endless helplessness of his situation now.

There is no discussion of ending his life. Euthanasia is illegal in Israel, and anyway, Sharon mostly breathes unassisted, though he is fed through a tube.

Trauma of departure

Among civil rights groups, where Sharon's myriad legal scrapes still resonate, and on the far right, where people wished him ill or dead for destroying the Gaza settlements, there is cynical muttering about Sharon's salary still flowing into the family coffers.

But the broad Israeli public, across political lines, seem above all to miss the feeling of firm government that characterised his tenure, the sense that someone was in charge and knew what he was doing, and how best to do it.

Demonstration against pullout Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza and a sliver of the West Bank prompted bitter protests

This widespread nostalgia reflects in part, of course, the huge trauma of Sharon's sudden departure.

He had broken with the Likud and set up a new, centrist party, Kadima. He was poised to sweep to victory in elections. Polls predicted more than 40, perhaps as many as 50 seats in the Knesset of 120 members. That, in Israel's multiple-party PR system, would have been a massive triumph.

It would have enabled him to continue the process of dismantling the occupation and settlement of the Palestinian territories, which, ironically, he himself had prominently led for long decades.

The upshot - and Sharon saw this, rather than peace itself, as his crowning glory - was to be a permanently strengthened strategic alliance with the United States. He boasted that the warmth of his ties with George W Bush, Condoleezza Rice and the other top policymakers in Washington, was unsurpassed in Israeli history.

Worldwide opprobrium

Instead, the process of withdrawal stopped. Under Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, the army fought an inconclusive, month-long war against the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon in 2006, and a destructive campaign against Hamas in Gaza in 2009 which drew down on Israel worldwide opprobrium.

Under the present prime minister, Benjmain Netanyahu, the peace process with the Palestinians is effectively frozen, and the relationship with Washington lurches from crisis to crisis.

As Sharon was prepared for his sad journey home, Netanyahu was sitting with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in New York, trying desperately to salvage the peace talks and the Israel-US relationship. They sat for more than seven hours.

Sharon, if he could speak, would doubtless point out archly that it wasn't like that in his day.

David Landau, formerly editor-in-chief of Haaretz, is The Economist correspondent in Israel. He is writing a biography of Ariel Sharon to be published by Knopf.

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