THAT'S MY BOY!
Technically he is an unemployed 38 year old who spends a lot of time with
his dad. But in reality, Omri Sharon, the Israeli prime minister's son, may
be the most powerful backroom operator in the Middle East. As well as being
a devoted follower of his father, he also has the ear of Yasser Arafat. In a
rare interview he talks to Guy Lawson
Friday August 16, 2002
The first time the son went to meet his father's enemy, it was late at
night, and the secret rendezvous was in a house in the West Bank town of
Ramallah. Omri is the son of Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel, and
the enemy he went to see is Yasser Arafat, a man his father refuses to meet
and says he wishes he'd killed when he had the chance. The first meeting was
in April of last year, shortly after Sharon was elected; the very fact that
the two sides were talking was hopeful and politically risky - the prime
minister had campaigned on a hardline promise never to talk under fire - and
it was potentially deadly.
All-out war seemed inevitable, but Omri had convinced his father of the need
for dialogue and to let him play the part of messenger. The son was
faithful. "I did not go as myself but as my father," Omri said. He and
Arafat planned to meet secretly every week, alone together. The significance
of sending Omri was sure to be understood by the Palestinians. No one could
be closer to Ariel Sharon, to his ear and his heart, than his son.
After changing cars and slipping through the back roads of Ramallah, Omri
arrived at the house first and waited. Arafat arrived and greeted the son
warmly, with the kindnesses and manners of the east. Omri did not want to
tell me whether they shook hands, because such is the delicacy of war and
peace in the Middle East that any gesture would be overly parsed and
interpreted on both sides, seen as a possible rejection of his father's
refusal to shake Arafat's hand. (I later learned from other sources that
Arafat embraced Omri.) He and Arafat retreated to a room in the back for
privacy. They spoke in English and in Arabic, and Omri took careful notes.
They talked about talking, and they talked about what could be done to avoid
war. If you want peace, the son said, give us a period of absolute quiet; if
you want to have peace for the ages, then give us no killing. Omri told
Arafat that the Israeli people trusted his father on questions of security.
The son came away with an impression of Arafat that is far different from
his father's. "I had to respect Arafat," Omri said. "I hated his tactics of
fighting, the means he used against us, but you have to respect him as the
man giving birth to the Palestinian dream for 30 years, carrying it, nursing
it, trying to take it into action."
Many of his father's supporters and opponents would have paroxysms of rage
to hear the son talking like that - respecting a terrorist? But Omri said he
left the meeting in high spirits. It was a beginning. There would be more
meetings. Perhaps there was a different way to do things. "I felt happy that
I had even tried to talk," Omri said. "It's good to feel that you've done
something that is the right thing to do."
Arafat was even more sanguine. After the meeting, he praised Omri as a "very
broad-minded man". Here was someone the Palestinians could talk to. The son
of Sharon, he said, was a "genetically modified improvement" of the father.
Palestinian sources I spoke to said Arafat gushed: "He's like my son."
Omri is the most powerful back-room operator in the Middle East. He has the
kind of influence that cannot be measured by cabinet posts or official
titles. The nepotism laws of Israel and the jealousies and machinations of
his father's rivals mean that Omri cannot "work" for the prime minister, and
so he does not go to official meetings and he has no office. Technically, he
is an unemployed 38-year-old man who spends an inordinate amount of time
with his widower father. In reality, he ran the prime minister's election
campaign and continues to run his affairs. He is rumoured to have handled
negotiations over the siege at the Church of the Nativity, and though he is
secretive about what he counsels, he is involved in every decision his
father makes. He does not, as a rule, give interviews and has not spoken
publicly about the secret Arafat meetings until now. He told me the story in
parts, over days, with a nearly physical reluctance. But he has decided only
recently to assume a more visible role in Israeli politics.
Omri was born in August 1964, the first child of Ariel and his wife, Lily.
Ariel had been married before, to Lily's elder sister Margalit, and they had
a son together before she died in a car crash. Omri's resemblance to his
father is strong, in size and eyes and the set of his brow. Like his father,
he is an ox of a man, but there is little of the bullishness and arrogance
and self-satisfaction that brought his father fame and infamy.
Omri keeps a mobile phone stuffed in the front pocket of his trousers, the
only phone he answers. Very few people have the number: the prime minister;
Omri's younger brother, Gilad; and the young Palestinian leaders whom Omri
has come to know and trust. Although he has not met Arafat personally in
nearly a year - since the Israeli attorney general put a stop to those
meetings - he still deals with Palestinian leaders beneath Arafat. For the
Palestinians, the phone number is a kind of lifeline. They can call him if
they need help - if they are trapped by an Israeli incursion, arrested,
under fire. In a war zone, Omri can change the circumstances on the ground
simply by making calls to the Israeli authorities.
"If there is something these Palestinians need and there is some way I can
help them, it's important that I do that," Omri told me. He will not reveal
their identities. The mere mention of their names could have lethal
consequences - for some Palestinians, being on good terms with the son of
Sharon could be seen as sedition or a sign of disloyalty. Likewise, a kind
word from a Palestinian would only cause Omri woe within the right wing of
The day I arrived in Israel, the son of the leader of a radical Palestinian
faction was killed in Beirut in a car-bomb attack speculated to be the work
of the Israeli secret service, Mossad. The father promised retribution in
kind, which could be taken to mean the younger Sharon. Since Omri is a
private citizen, he is provided none of the elaborate security granted to
countless Israeli politicians and functionaries. He lives in Tel Aviv, which
he thinks is safer than Jerusalem. A friend of Omri's told me that one of
the most dangerous places in the world to be was standing next to Omri, and
Omri asked me not to write about the steps he takes to protect himself.
"Believe me, I can take care of myself," he said.
The next morning, we arranged to meet at a pavement cafe which he said
served the best coffee in Tel Aviv, and Omri arrived on his mountain bike.
Despite his deliberately low profile, a few of the passersby in the morning
rush hour nodded and smiled in recognition. Omri said he was on the verge of
deciding whether or not to run for the Knesset in the next general election.
Unlike his father, who admits to no doubt about almost anything, Omri is
part of a less dogmatic generation, and he lives in a world of contingencies
and uncertainties, allowing for doubts about others and himself.
"Do I have 'it'?" Omri asked rhetorically of the notion of running for
office. "Do I have what it takes to be a leader? You have to have
testosterone, and I don't mean only for the males. In politics people do
things for you only because they believe in you. There is a lot of
responsibility in it, and the personal price is very high. Everything you do
is criticised, and that is not so easy as you might think. On the plus side,
politics is a very important part of life. You can shape and control the way
He pushed his bicycle along the avenue toward a health-food store where he
shops. The bike has a child's seat on the back for his four-year-old
daughter. Omri never married the mother of his little girl, instead giving
himself over to the military and now to the service of his father. He has
maintained good relations with his daughter's mother, however.
Omri said he agreed with his father on all the important political matters.
His father has said that he and Omri share the same views and beliefs but
that Omri is more moderate in his manner. But, in truth, the two of them
have had fundamental disagreements in substance and in tone. One major
example is his father's trip to the Temple Mount.
For the Palestinians, the latest cycle of violence began on that day -
September 28 2000 - when Ariel went to the Temple Mount, or the Noble
Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif), as it is known to Muslims. The mount, which
includes two mosques (al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock), sits on land captured
by the Israelis in the war of 1967, but it has remained under the
administrative control of the Muslim authorities for religious and symbolic
reasons. When Ariel announced his intentions, Palestinian leaders warned
that violence would surely follow. Ariel was only a member of the Knesset at
the time, and his visit was ostensibly the assertion of any citizen's right
to freedom of movement. He arrived at the holy site wearing dark sunglasses
and surrounded by a thousand riot police. "We came here today with a message
of peace," he said. Since then the renewed intifada has taken its name from
Ariel's move: al-Aqsa.
Omri told me that he disagreed with his father about his walk to the Temple
Mount and that before the trip he'd tried to persuade him not to go. "I
don't think I liked the idea then," Omri said. "But it is not my job to like
things. I have my beliefs, but from the beginning he's the one who decides."
Omri said he had misgivings. "I wasn't sure it would be successful," he
said. "I told him I disagreed, and he told me he had decided, and that was
it." I asked what he thought his father's motive had been in going to the
Temple Mount, and Omri said he wasn't sure.
Now, he said, he has come to see the episode his father's way. "Eventually,
I realised I was wrong. It was the right thing to do."
I asked how that was so, and there was a long pause. "He did what he
believed in and what he thought was right."
He paused again. "In the Bible, it says that you are supposed to respect
your parents," he said with growing insistence. "And I think I'm doing it. I
think it's the right thing to do."
In May of last year, Omri's secret missions to meet Arafat were sabotaged
politically. A leftwing peace party and a government watchdog group, backed
by the attorney general of Israel, sued to prevent Omri from conducting
official business because he had no position in the government. "Sending a
family member on diplomatic missions is not acceptable in a properly
conducted state," the attorney general declared. The supreme court ruled
against the Sharons, despite the father's citing the value to the nation of
sending his son and despite the fact that secret negotiations have always
been integral to Israeli peace efforts. Since then Omri's role has been
closely circumscribed, with the attorney general drafting formal rules about
what he can and cannot do. He is allowed to meet with Arafat only if it is a
matter of life and death, the court decided.
Last July, with violence escalating and the prime minister under pressure to
launch a large-scale attack on the Palestinians, Ariel petitioned the
attorney general for permission to allow his son to meet Arafat. After
high-level security discussions, Omri was permitted to go, but his presence
at the meeting was leaked almost immediately, and it was apparent that his
role had become politicised. Diplomatically, the informality of past
dealings was in ruins. Omri returned in mid-September but has not been able
to meet Arafat since. "It wasn't something light and easy any more," he
said. "It became irrelevant, in a way. Now we don't have a quiet, confident
way of passing ideas and talking. I think it's a problem, at least from my
point of view."
I asked Omri about his hopes for the future, and he whistled and shook his
head at the mention of what lies ahead. "I am an optimist," he said. "I
believe in people most of the time." It was not for him to question the
wisdom of his father's views, certainly not in public. He was devoted to
seeing that his father's will was done. He said his mother had died just
over two years ago, and that he still missed her terribly and thought about
her all the time. She was a funny and kind and tender woman, he said, and he
tried to live up to her standards. I asked what he thought his mother had
hoped for him. "I don't know," he said. "I'm still trying to find my own
hopes." The mobile phone in his jeans pocket rang and he excused himself. It
was his father calling, again.