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World Perspective | Mideast

Son of Sharon Begets Debate in Israel

April 28, 2001|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — When Yasser Arafat wants Ariel Sharon's ear, whom does he call?

Sharon's elder son, Omri, a former law student whose chief qualification appears to be his father's unlimited trust.

Omri Sharon has emerged as Prime Minister Sharon's secret channel to the Palestinian Authority president, a connection maintained even in these darkest of times.

The younger Sharon has met at least twice with Arafat. And just this week, Arafat phoned him to promise that he would do something about the mortars that Palestinian militants have been firing at Israeli targets.

Using his son as a discreet go-between is a convenient way for Sharon to talk to Arafat without actually talking to Arafat. Sharon has repeatedly vowed that he will not renew dialogue with the Palestinian leadership until a bloody 7-month-old revolt is quelled. The violence has not stopped, but Sharon and Arafat are communicating, albeit indirectly.

Now, however, his son's diplomatic freelancing has landed Sharon in a bit of hot water. Concerned about nepotism, Israeli Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein had told Sharon to stop dispatching his son on secret, quasi-official missions. Sharon ignored Rubinstein, and the matter is scheduled to go before Israel's high court next week.

"There is a saying in English: 'It is not done,' " Rubinstein said in criticizing Omri Sharon's dabbling in the affairs of state. It is not in keeping, the attorney general said, with the proper governmental culture that "we are trying so hard to develop in Israel."

In court documents, the elder Sharon responded testily: "The [Palestinian] side knows that whatever Omri says is as if I said it, and that anything told him is as if it were told me. The family connection is a priceless advantage to the state of Israel and overrides any disadvantage."

Indeed, people around Sharon say he believes that the practice of delegating Omri as envoy is in keeping with ancient Middle Eastern traditions that view the sending of a son, one's own flesh and blood, as an act of respect. Whether that is true, it is clear that Sharon, a 73-year-old veteran warrior of the old school, is suspicious of nearly everybody, including his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, who might be the more natural candidate to deal with Arafat.

Omri is perhaps the person closest to the prime minister. At 36, he is a single dad and ungraduated law student who has the same bulky build as his father. He also sports a shaved head, a style typical of the hip, relaxed Tel Aviv scene he is said to enjoy.

The younger Sharon first gained wide attention as manager of his father's remarkable election campaign, which ended in victory by a historically wide margin. He is credited with helping to create a more moderate image of his father and with smoothing the latter's rougher edges.

"Many years ago, he [Omri] told me that if I wanted to be involved in politics, I must not see things in black and white," the elder Sharon told an Israeli interviewer earlier this month. "Omri is large and overgrown, but he will go 200 kilometers [125 miles] to photograph a flower in the Negev or to see a desert flood at night. Undoubtedly, he had a conciliating and softening influence on me. He also taught me not to try to settle accounts, not to deal all the time with the past."

The debate over the younger Sharon's role has not occurred along predictable party lines. Some of the prime minister's allies on the right say that no one, not even Sharon fils, should be talking to Arafat while the fighting rages. Some of Sharon's enemies on the left dismiss all the fuss, saying that surreptitious communication is better than none at all. And others question whether such a delicate task should be left in the hands of a diplomatic neophyte.

Omri has received one unusual endorsement--from Arafat's influential financial advisor, Mohammed Rashid, with whom the younger Sharon has discussed such issues as the reopening of a lucrative Palestinian-run casino in the West Bank city of Jericho.

"It would be very unfortunate if Omri Sharon were forced to stop his missions and special contacts with the Palestinian leadership," Rashid said. "He knows how to build good relations with Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian leadership."

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