"We have backed off five yards from the edge of the cliff," Dr. Yoram Weiss said about his patient Ariel Sharon's medical condition. If so, that may be the first time since the 1940s that the 77-year-old Israeli leader has not lived inches from the edge.
Sharon first visited the edge as a teenager. Born in 1928 to Russian immigrant parents in a farming community 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, at age 14 he began fighting the British who ruled what was and would be Israel. He built his military reputation during Israel's wars against Arab states, becoming known for daring tactics and occasionally daring commanders to punish him when he refused to obey orders.
In 1973, Sharon led a sortie across the Suez Canal that helped turn Israel's near-defeat in the Yom Kippur War into victory. He helped to form the tough-minded Likud Party and gained high office, only to be run out in disgrace. He made a comeback as an ultra-hawk, but last year gained the hatred of some hawks for his willingness to withdraw soldiers and settlers from Gaza. The man once forced to resign as defense minister (in 1983) for his role in attacks on Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon in the end was paving a way for Palestinian statehood.
Sharon, nicknamed "the Bulldozer," was never mellow like a Frank Sinatra song, but he could say with the singer, "I did it my way." And he made others see things his way: When George W. Bush was governor of Texas in 1998, he visited Israel, and Sharon took him on a helicopter ride to show the tiny country's narrow boundaries. Bush got the point: "What struck me is the tiny distance between enemy lines and Israel's population centers. In Texas, some of our driveways are longer than that."
When Likud fell out of power, Sharon spent time at his sheep farm in southern Israel, and although no one mistook the overweight Sharon for a slim shepherd David, Israel's voters turned to him in February 2001 and made him prime minister. During his first two years in office, Israel responded to Palestinian attacks by bombing Palestinian territories and then beginning construction of the West Bank barrier.
All these activities were at the edge of a cliff, but Sharon believed Israel had no choice if it wanted to survive. A "roadmap" to peace was supposed to take Israel away from the edge in 2003, but it wasn't working, so in December Sharon announced a unilateral plan to evacuate settlements. In May 2004, 60 percent of his own Likud Party rejected the disengagement plans, so he formed an alliance with opposition Labor Party members that allowed him to do it his way. Two months ago, he set up a new political party, Kadima, that quickly jumped to first place in Israeli polls.
Sharon's personal life also has had drama. His first wife, Margalith, died in an automobile accident in 1962. Their one son, Gur, died at age 11 in 1967, after a friend apparently shot him while they were playing with one of Sharon's antique guns. Gur died in his father's lap. He married Margalith's younger sister, Lily, with whom he had two sons, Omri and Gilad. Lily Sharon died in 2000. Omri last week resigned his seat in the Israeli parliament after pleading guilty to perjury and violating campaign finance laws.
Pat Robertson suggested last week that Sharon's stroke was punishment from God for his agreement to relinquish some Palestinian land. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land rightly criticized Robertson for pretending to know the mind of God. I'm more impressed with God the novelist, writing such an amazing plot in the Middle East and creating astounding lives like Sharon's. Who would have predicted in 2001 that doves in 2006 would be describing Sharon as an eagle rather than a buzzard?