Sharon's legend grows among Israelis

Controversial aspects of the prime minister's career are muted by an anxious nation.

In Hebrew, "Ariel" means "Lion of God." As Ariel Sharon continued to show signs of improvement Wednesday following the massive stroke and three brain surgeries he endured, many Israelis - from across the political spectrum - have come to see their prime minister as no less than the name implies.

From behind the wheel of his taxi, David, who would not give his last name, tells a story now circulating around the country about Sharon going up to Heaven. "He saw Arafat and everyone else up there and decided he had to come back to us. Now he is arguing with God, like Abraham did, to give him more time."

That quasi-biblical view of Sharon is typical among Israelis these days. The controversial aspects of Sharon's record as a military man and a government leader are drowned out by an outpouring of emotion from a people who desperately want him to wake up and continue leading Israel to what appeared to be the finish line he was sprinting toward in his final years.

Never mind that one of Sharon's chief surgeons, Dr. Jose Cohen, said that expecting him to recover fully is unlikely. Israelis by the thousands have gone to the Wailing Wall - the most holy spot in the world for Jews - to pray for just that.

Perhaps no other person alive today so embodies the history and character of Israel as Sharon. His life has been a mix of tragedy, controversy, and conquest. He has lost two wives and a son. His name will always be linked to massacres of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. And yet, he led Israel in stunning successes as a soldier and a politician.

That is why, says Moshe Lissak, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University, his legend continues to grow.

"The human aspect to this man is very strong, and it's a very emotional response people are having for him right now," Mr. Lissak says, adding that the intense reaction Israel is seeing would probably not be accorded another man, even if he was prime minister. "There is a lot of sympathy for him and his family despite how controversial they are."

(One of Sharon's sons, Omri, was convicted of campaign finance violations in relation to his father's first run for prime minister, and is facing possible jail time.)

Since his stroke, Israeli television has shown flattering footage of Sharon from his army days and interviews with many of his old friends and fellow soldiers. The story being told of the brilliant military general who bested the Egyptians and the resolute prime minister who extricated Israel from the Gaza Strip, has glossed over details of the defense minister who mired Israel in Lebanon and the hard-liner who built the settlements which have hindered peace and whose provocative visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 coincided with the start of the second intifada.

Assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak "Rabin was also not the beloved one until he was murdered, but afterwards he was appreciated and made into a hero," Lissak says. "The legend was built by the press, and the people both. We are seeing the same process now. People are realizing the history of Sharon and are forgiving him for everything because the end of his career is so tragic."

"They [also] feel he is the only figure in Israel that could carry out any political plan," he added.

Now it seems that Israelis are trying through the sheer will of millions to bring Sharon back to them against all odds.

"It would be a miracle, we know," says Zvia Sorinov, from behind the counter of her homemade-food store. Like many shops in Israel, hers has the television on throughout the day as she and her customers wait on every word from Hadassah Hospital. "But if everyone will pray for him, think positive, wish for him - it is something spiritual, but it works."

Children are also trying to connect to Sharon. On Tuesday, a boy brought a sign to Hadassah Hospital, where he is being treated, reading: "Sharon, wake up, there is still much more work to do." Another boy, Oran Goren, 4, drove from an hour away on Saturday with his father to give the prime minister a picture of a brain he drew in many colors because he wanted "Sharon's brain to be happy," the Hebrew newspaper Maariv reported.

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