When Ariel Sharon Welcomed a Roman Catholic’s Prayers
Ariel Sharon’s body bowed inevitably to the laws of nature this weekend. And that is as it should be. For during his lifetime, Sharon himself was as close to a force of nature as anyone I have ever known. Two very different meetings with the former Israeli war hero and prime minister will explain my point of view.
In 1982, as a young correspondent for United Press International, I was in Lebanon to report on the Israeli military’s incursion into that country. The goal of the government of Menachem Begin was to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization from the cozy headquarters it had established in Beirut, among the most magical of cities.
No ordinary military venture was this. Israel was trying not only to win an armed conflict, but also to fight to a draw, or better, in the battle for the world’s sympathy. The PLO used Lebanon as its staging area to launch cross-border attacks, kidnap Israelis, and train future terrorists. Begin decided this must stop. And to ensure it did, he sent Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, at the head of the Israeli Defense Forces. Already a storied warrior for his courage and leadership, Sharon entered Lebanon determined to deal the PLO a blow from which it would not recover quickly.
As his column of armored vehicles passed through West Beirut, I caught a glimpse of Sharon – even then seeming larger-than-life – and determined I would ask him a few questions. With a microphone in one hand, I tried to mount his armed personnel carrier. One of the soldiers attached to his detail apparently thought the microphone might be dangerous (and what person who regrets having been quoted in the news would not attest that they often are?), and planted the butt of his rifle in my face. My last memory was seeing Sharon’s shaggy head turn for a second in my direction, then return his steady gaze to the scene before him.
To say that the Israelis were welcomed in Lebanon would be stretching the facts. Nor did the incursion result in Begin’s promise of “forty years of peace.” It did, however, succeed in getting Yaser Arafat and the leadership of the PLO to leave the country. Sharon quickly earned the nickname, “The Butcher of Beirut” for his ferocity, not one that he enjoyed, but which he thought a small price to pay for his country’s security.
About 20 years later, I saw Sharon again, under different circumstances. I was then the vice president of Fox News, in Tel Aviv to interview the prime minister, who happened to be Ariel Sharon. The tremors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were still reverberating in the United States, and few countries knew that feeling better than Israel. Earlier that month, a column of IDF troops had been ambushed in the West Bank town of Jenin, prompting an Israeli attack that, in most news reporting, was referred to as the “Jenin Massacre,” not because of the loss of Israeli life, but because of Palestinian casualties (Fox did not use that term, something that Israeli viewers noticed and appreciated).
When I entered Sharon’s surprisingly modest office, he stood to greet me. Before we clasped hands, I expressed my condolences on the loss of his troops’ lives and asked him if he would accept a Roman Catholic’s prayers on their behalf.
And Ariel Sharon — the “Butcher of Beirut,” the epitome of “Israeli evil,” the “monster” depicted through much of the Middle East as glorying in bloodshed – Ariel Sharon began to weep. He embraced me in his burly grip – a not altogether pleasant experience – and said, “Jews don’t get many prayers said for them. We have to take them wherever they come from.”
Later in our meeting, I told Sharon about my first decidedly short encounter with him in Beirut. He grinned, put a palm on my cheek and observed, “You seem to have recovered.”
We will all recover, eventually, from the loss this weekend of Ariel Sharon. But we will not forget a man who was not afraid to defend his faith, his country and his people.
John Moody is Executive Editor and Executive VP of Fox News.