‘Hagiography’ of Sharon written by a confidant in race with death
I first met Uri Dan when we were both covering former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s state visit to Paris a year and a half ago.
I was immediately impressed by his energy and zest for life and fascinated by the stories he told me about his five decades of journalism and his lifelong friendship with Sharon. He liked the fact that while the other journalists sat around doing nothing during the down time on the trip, I sat glued to the latest Harry Potter novel.
Uri had not read any of the Potter books, but he knew that their hero is a wizard, and he told me that so was Sharon.
“People don’t understand the magical powers of Arik Potter,” Uri told me.
From then on, Uri connected me with Harry Potter. He called me whenever he needed a favor, and I spoke to him when I needed information about Sharon that only he would know. He would always reply with great joy and at great length.
I interviewed Uri at a Tel Aviv restaurant two months ago and wrote a story about his conflicted feelings after he and his mentor fell out over Sharon’s plan to dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip. It hurt him to see Sharon’s shift from settlement builder to remover, but he also hoped it would be Sharon who would decide Israel’s final borders.
But the emotional pain I saw in Uri then was nothing compared to the physical pain I saw him in when I interviewed him two months ago about the book he wrote about Sharon. He apologized for not shaking hands his doctors had told him not to and he begged me not to write in the story that he had been stricken with lung cancer.
Uri didn’t want anyone to pity him, but he lamented the cigarettes that he smoked even after it was clear to him that he was sick. He wrote the book very quickly because he wanted to make sure he would finish it and allow future generations to read about the experiences he had with Sharon. He met his deadline: Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait was published on Oct. 31. Uri Dan, the Israel correspondent for the New York Post and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, died on Dec. 24, succumbing to his brief battle with lung cancer at age 71.
During our interview, Uri admitted that the book was just as much an autobiography as it was a book about Sharon. “I wanted to tell a human story of a man who fought against all odds,” Uri told me. “This is the story of my life, of my friendship with a man who I foresaw would play a major role in Israel’s defense and its future.”
Uri was filled with joy when he held a copy of his newly published book in his hands for the first time and saw the pictures inside featuring him together with Sharon at various historical moments. But it was a bittersweet moment for him, because Sharon still lay unconscious at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, felled by a massive stroke in January 2006.
“I wanted to write many more chapters together with him,” Uri said. “I wanted to bring him the book.”
Uri described the book as “the encyclopedia of a Jewish hero.” The journalist who was born with the name Dan Uri, but wrote under the byline Uri Dan because it “sounded better” grew up reading history books. He said that when he saw Sharon for the first time, he knew he was meeting a man who would become a historical figure.
Sharon advised Uri to keep a journal. He would often motion to Uri during historical events and even personal traumatic experiences to make sure he was writing down what he said. Uri would often reply to Sharon, “Ariel, you work faster than I write.”
“I never thought I would write a book about Sharon’s historical role and stature,” Uri said. “But in the many years of being with him in times of pain, joy, and personal tragedies, I said to myself that since I am a journalist, I should keep a journal. I decided 40 years ago that everything should be written down.”
The result is a book of conversations with Sharon that takes readers through his words and thought processes during the events that became integral parts of Israel’s history.
Chances are there will never be a more sympathetic book written about Sharon, par for the course for Uri Dan, who defiantly defended Sharon during all his years as a journalist and during the years he served as Sharon’s spokesman in the Defense Ministry.
Until his dying day, Uri believed that Sharon would recover from his illness, but perhaps it was fitting that shortly after Sharon stopped functioning, so would the man whom I called his harried hagiographer.
The last conversation I had with Uri was when I called him for a story about the anniversary of the founding of Kadima. He answered the phone in Washington, DC, early in the morning. I was shocked that, in spite of his condition, he had traveled with Ehud Olmert in November to cover the prime minister’s meeting with President George Bush.
Uri sounded very weak but very happy and proud. He told me he had succeeded in getting a copy of the book to Bush fulfilling one of his goals in life and he said we would get together soon in Jerusalem.
I was looking forward to meeting with Uri, because a year ago, he promised me a scoop about Sharon’s true feelings about Olmert. Uri said Sharon not only never declared Olmert his successor but also said harsh things about the man who succeeded him.
Uri delayed telling me what Sharon had said about Olmert, because he thought Sharon would wake up from his coma. But he promised me that as soon as he returned to Israel, he would come to my house to meet my daughter and give me the scoop.
The next time I called Uri, his son answered his cell phone at his father’s hospital bed. He told me that Uri was not well but that his father had told him stories about the young reporter named Harry Potter.
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