The aptly-named Ariel Sharon Park

TEL AVIV — A bloated, stinking mass that everyone would have preferred not to have to see, but which nonetheless was thrust upon them. A sight that shamed the people of Israel and ought to have been marginalized, but which was situated right in the center of the nation and was impossible to ignore. In the end, it seems, people will decide they were too harsh in their judgments.

You might think I’m talking about the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who endured international isolation and domestic opprobrium for his uncompromising military and political career, only to end up grudgingly appreciated for his acceptance that Israel had to end its occupation of Palestinian land.

But I’m not. I’m referring to Ariel Sharon Park. 

Israel’s biggest garbage dump, Hiriya, is being redeveloped as a park. This week plans are being finalized to include a 50,000-seat amphitheater as part of the project.

Laid out by German and Israeli designers, it’s trumpeted by the Israeli government as bigger than New York City's Central Park and the biggest urban park built anywhere in the world during the last century. Hiriya’s switch from eyesore to attraction is a strange parallel to the career of Sharon. Now 81, he lies in a persistent vegetative state in Sheba Medical Center in a Tel Aviv suburb.

The prime minister had only just begun to convince world leaders that he was no demon and might in fact be the best hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, when he fell into a coma after a stroke in January 2006. He has never recovered.

Some might say Israeli politics haven’t either. Shortly before his stroke, Sharon had launched a new political party, Kadima. It attracted many centrist legislators from other parties and looked set to dominate the Knesset.

Sharon’s central policy at that time was to pull out of many of Israel’s West Bank settlements, just as he had done from its Gaza Strip settlements in 2005.

With Sharon off the scene, Israel was led by Ehud Olmert, a man without his predecessor’s military flair and experience. Olmert messed up an unnecessary war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in mid-2006. His approval ratings went — given polling margins of error — to zero, and all chances of a West Bank pullout went out the window.

The result: Israel’s current right-wing government, and the stubborn silence of the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate with it until the continued expansion of the settlements is frozen. 

When I first came to Israel in 1996, Sharon’s career looked to be over. He’d been ostracized for his controversial role in Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion and for failing to prevent the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies.

Even the new right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, didn’t want him in his cabinet back then and cobbled together a new set of minor ministerial powers for Sharon, to buy off some of his friends in the Knesset. Later Sharon clawed his way into the Foreign Ministry and then to the prime minister’s office.

Hiriya, at that time, was just as unpopular as Sharon. It was the first sight I had of Israel when I left Ben-Gurion International Airport on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway. I looked out of the taxi window at the 260-feet-high hill rising steeply out of the otherwise billiard-table flatness of the Dan plain and said, “Oh, a mountain? In the middle of a flat place like this?”

“It’s a mountain,” said my driver, with the kind of cynical sneer specific to Israelis that I would come to know so well in the ensuing decade. “A mountain of our shit.”

In fact, 112 acres of ordure a half-mile square, 565 million cubic feet of garbage gathered there since 1952, pumping out methane, carbon dioxide and sulfur. Bulldozers (also a common nickname for the unyielding Sharon) trundled about on top of the mound, shunting the trash into lanes and looking like childrens’ toys on the enormous excrescence. Flocks of gulls swarmed like flies on a giant reclining rhino.

Such dense clouds of gulls that they caused several engine failures when they collided with jets taking off or landing at Ben-Gurion over the years — one of the reasons for closing the dump in 1998.

As Prime Minister, Sharon supported the idea of turning Hiriya into a park. He blocked attempts to develop the area for housing.

There are now three recycling plants beside the hill of garbage, so in the end its bulk will be trimmed. Its greenhouse gases will eventually be used to create the electricity to light the amphitheater for nighttime shows. The whole park will cost $250 million and is expected to be completed by 2014.

Organizers have said the site will be an international tourist draw, like Stonehenge.

Well, there will be some archaeological sites inside the park—though not perhaps of Stonehenge’s magnitude. Some of them are from the ancient town of Bnei Brak, which used to stand in the Hiriya area during the Talmudic period.

This archaeological park will be named after Menachem Begin, the prime minister who was drawn into the Lebanon War by his defense minister, Sharon. When he saw how the war turned out, Begin fell into a depression — also prompted by the death of his wife — and lived in seclusion until his death in 1992.

Begin will be a sideshow to Sharon’s main billing at the park. It’s only a shame that Sharon’s stroke hit before he could make his disastrous conduct of the Lebanon War a footnote to his closing down of the Israeli colonies in the West Bank.