The giant and his heir: Ariel Sharon, as remembered by his son
Gilad Sharon’s biography of his father not only describes Ariel Sharon as an unflawed and untainted military leader and politician. It also seeks to polish the author’s own public image, perhaps as a stepping-stone to to a political career of his own
Sharon: Hayav Shel Manhig
(Sharon: The Life of a Leader), by Gilad Sharon
Hebrew edition: Matar Publishing House, 600 pages, NIS 138
U.S. edition: Translated by Mitch Ginsburg, Harper, 640 pages, $30
In the autumn of 1991, 10 years after the death of Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon wrote an article eulogizing the military leader that was headlined “We should not shatter this myth.”
“Dayan’s exalted stature as a leader who came from among the people, from the fields of battle, constantly reminded his rivals of their own natural dimensions, for which they could not forgive him,” he wrote in the piece, which was published in Yedioth Ahronoth.
“Personal jealousy and political grudges blinded more than a few critics of a man who was never weighted down by the gates of Israel, which he carried on his shoulders.” Sharon ended the tribute by saying: “If only we could learn from his actions and from his manner, through which he changed the world around him more than most other members of his generation did.”
A rereading of the article gives one the feeling that Sharon was writing less about Dayan than about himself. The spirit of that piece – the call to leave intact the legendary greatness of an outsize politician and military leader rather than closely examining the holes in the myth – is astoundingly similar to the spirit that animates this new biography about Ariel Sharon, written by his youngest son, Gilad.
In Gilad Sharon’s version, any problems or missteps in his father’s wondrous career were caused solely by the narrow-mindedness and malevolence of small and jealous people incapable of understanding or accepting the sheer greatness of his father. In this book, Ariel Sharon is always right and always a victim.
Everyone in this book, aside from the elder Sharon, is, at best, mediocre: from the chiefs of staff Haim Laskov and Tzvi Tzur, who didn’t promote him, through their successors David Elazar and Haim Bar-Lev, who tried to keep Sharon from racking up military victories in the Yom Kippur War for personal reasons. Then there are the politicians, including Yitzhak Rabin (“not a strong man,” the author writes), Benjamin Netanyahu (“a liar,” he says, quoting his father and Ehud Olmert). Although Olmert inherited Sharon’s mantle when the sitting prime minister had a stroke in January of 2006, Sharon, who has been comatose since then, did not see him as his political heir.
This is hardly the first time the child of an Israeli politician has written about his or her parent. Yaakov Sharett edited and published the personal diary of his father, Moshe Sharett, the second prime minister of Israel, and it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this volume. Ofra Nevo-Eshkol wrote a book about the humor of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, in which she humanizes her father, and Yael Dayan wrote “My Father, His Daughter,” which candidly depicts the riotous sexual behavior of her father, Moshe Dayan.
Gilad Sharon’s “Sharon: The Life of a Leader” differs from these works in that it is a detailed and heavily documented biography of sorts. Ariel Sharon held onto everything, including the scribbled notes passed to him by colleagues at cabinet meetings. It serves as an unmitigated statement of defense for its subject. The book is dedicated “To my beloved wife and children, my brother, my mother, those who preceded us, and especially for you, Dad – you are the hero of the book, the hero of our lives.” The dedication is the first indication that in this book, the author is attempting to fill the role of the late Uri Dan, the most illustrious of the propagandists whom Sharon employed in his byzantine court.
Brave, daring – and contentious
For better or for worse, Ariel Sharon played a significant role in the annals of the State of Israel. In the first part of his public life he was a soldier and general who fought in every war and became renowned as a brave military leader and a daring strategist. At the same time, he was also considered a quarrelsome and contentious person who was incapable of respecting authority, did not always speak the truth, and was wont to be involved in blood-spattered incidents.
Sharon, who was born in Kfar Malal in February 1928 to parents who immigrated from Byelorussia, went from being a leader on the battlefield to leading the country in the cabinet room. In the second part of his public life, he was a political person who served in key positions in various governments over more than three decades – most prominently as prime minister from 2001 until his stroke in 2006, and in cabinet positions including defense minister and foreign minister. In his incarnation as a politician, Sharon had a similar reputation to the one he had as a general. Yes, he had positive attributes, like inner strength, initiative and immense energy -– he was known as a sort of bulldozer – but he also had less positive ones. He quarreled with every prime minister under whom he served, from Menachem Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu. What’s more, there were doubts about his personal integrity. It was said that he was capable of breaking all the rules in pursuit of his ambitions. The journalist Uzi Benziman described him as a person who “doesn’t stop at a red light.”
But none of the less than pretty sides of Sharon’s personality – none of his shortcomings and weaknesses, none of the black stains on his reputation – made it into his son’s book. In it, Ariel Sharon is an untainted and unflawed man who made the most colossal contributions to the security of the State of Israel. According to the book, Sharon was the true architect of the Six-Day War victory; he is the man who, unlike all the complacent and muddled people around him, foresaw the Yom Kippur War, and he is the man who won it; he is responsible for bombing the nuclear reactor in Iraq; he is the leader who vanquished the rampant terror of the second intifada; and it is he who orchestrated the first Lebanon war, which the book describes as a success.
In the hands of the loving son, every controversial event in which his father took part undergoes more effective reconstruction than anything that Ronit Raphael does for the clients of her cosmetic surgery clinics: from the 1953 massacre in the West Bank village of Qibya to the reprisal raids of Sharon’s Unit 101, from the officers’ revolt in the Six-Day War to the battle of the egos in the General Staff during the Yom Kippur War.
In addition to smoothing out Ariel Sharon’s blunt edges, Gilad also lays on the praise a little too thick. He exaggerates in describing David Ben-Gurion’s admiration for his father, which, of course, “did nothing to increase his popularity with the other officers.” And the author overlooks a memorable observation about Sharon that Ben-Gurion made in his diary: “If he could only be weaned of the shortcoming of not telling the truth in his reports, he would be an exemplary military leader.”
The book also omits some less than flattering facts. To cite one example of this cherry-picking, Sharon built dummy settlements in the Rafah Salient in Northern Sinai in early 1978 so as to throw a wrench into the peace negotiations with the Egyptians. The action nearly brought those talks to a premature end, but this is not even mentioned in the book.
Two years later, Sharon was desperately – and, it turned out, futilely – lobbying to be appointed defense minister. Many were then concerned about Sharon’s possible appointment, with Deputy Prime Minister Simha Erlich going as far as saying: “As defense minister, Sharon would be capable of encircling the Knesset with tanks.” But Sharon the younger skips over that part of the story, writing only: “In May 1980 Ezer Weizman resigned from his position as defense minister, leaving the post in Menachem Begin’s hands.” And four years after that, Ariel Sharon was humiliated when the Jewish Agency’s board of trustees rejected him out of hand when he expressed interest in being appointed to a relatively minor position, head of the Agency's immigration department. This was mortifying to Sharon, so it is not mentioned at all in the book.
All of this reaches a climax in the description of the first Lebanon war, which hovered like a black cloud over Ariel Sharon’s head for many years. Sharon the younger describes this war as “unavoidable,” and its outcome as positive, even though many Israelis would take umbrage at the notion that the incursion into Lebanon was anything but a war of choice, and even though it was a traumatic event that set off a cold civil war and caused a deep rupture within the army, drawing a line between citizens and soldiers based on whether they were for or against the war. But what the reader gets is the deceptively straightforward and dry sentence, “Begin’s government demonstrated its responsibility toward the citizens of Israel, setting clear goals for the war and attaining them.”
Gilad writes that his father acted as a skilled defense minister, albeit one who was loyal and naive, and who fell prey to the bloody fangs of other, cynical politicians: “My father, despite his vast experience, was naive ... The antiwar protests, the attacks from the left and the media, they all demanded a victim. Someone would have to pay with his head.”
Gilad mentions his father’s “executioners” in his description of the November 1982 funeral of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s wife, Aliza. It was a tumultuous time for Sharon – the Kahan Commission was then investigating the massacre committed by the Christian Phalange militia of Palestinian residents of the Sabra and Chatila camps, and Sharon’s political fate hung in the balance. There, among the thousands of people in attendance, Sharon noticed two who were watching him: “they wore black hats, wearing black ties, and black coats and looked at him darkly. After the funeral my father went to the Knesset to deliver a speech. Standing at the podium, he saw, in the guest section, the same two figures, both staring at him hard, like a pair of black ravens. The two men were [Supreme Court] Justices Yitzhak Kahan and Aharon Barak, both members of the three-person commission of inquiry. Their stares left no room for doubt.”
Thus, in a single sentence, two decent judges who were faithfully doing their jobs are turned into a sort of pair of covert agents in the secret police of a despotic regime. Members of the cabinet who approved the conclusions of the committee, which recommended that Sharon resign as minister of defense, did so solely out of personal envy, according to the book. As time the cabinet was convening, writes Gilad, the rhythmic calls of Sharon’s fans were being voiced outside the cabinet room: “Arik, Arik.” That was bad news for Sharon, writes Gilad. “The chants of support had more of an effect than those calling for his head. His colleagues hated the disproportionate support he was given from within the Likud camp. “These cries, by those who supported him, are what influenced the ministers,” who ended up ousting Sharon. “They could not bear this show of support within the Likud camp.”
Shortly after his dismissal, Sharon reviewed an honor guard at his farewell ceremony at the Defense Ministry. “He thought of his father, Samuil, who told him thirty-seven years earlier, in the orchard in Kfar Malal, ‘Never turn Jews over. Never do that.’ And now, those who had been the victims, the underground fighters turned in by their Jewish brother, were the ones who handed him over to the mob.”
The secret star
But this book was not conceived simply as a hagiography of Ariel Sharon. It has another function too: to tweak the public image of Gilad Sharon, who is perhaps on his way to a political career of his own. Presumably he is hoping for a more illustrious one than that of his brother, Omri, who capped off his three years as a Knesset member with a four-month stint in prison for fraud related to his father’s 1999 Likud primary campaign.
Extensive sections of the book are dedicated to an elucidation of the author’s ideological doctrine. If this book were really intended as pure biography, it would be hard to understand what these sections are doing here. At times, Gilad expresses criticism in the book of events that took place well after his father went into a coma. He is particularly incensed that Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s incursion into Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, didn’t accomplish enough.
Writing with the fury of a political commentator, he criticizes Ehud Olmert for telling the cabinet, after Palestinians fired rockets on southern Israel 10 days after the operation ended, that there would be a “disproportionate Israeli response to the rocket fire,” essentially saying that no response is disproportionately harsh.
“Beyond the feebleness of the threat lies a more fundamental lack of understanding of terrorism and the fight against it,” writes Gilad. “What does a ‘disproportionate response’ mean? What would be deemed proportionate: a rocket for rocket exchange? The proportionate response to the violation of Israel’s sovereignty and the attempts to kill its citizenry should be sharp and severe, and should not be dictated by the enemy.”
Gilad Sharon is the secret star of this book. The police officers who interrogated him in connection with a plethora of corruption allegations in which he was suspected of assisting his father once said that they had never come across a suspect who was so zealous about insisting on his right to remain silent. Gilad’s refusal to speak to fraud investigators extended to even the most basic courtesies (“Good morning,” “How are you?”) while his father was serving as prime minister.
On corruption allegations, Gilad continues to remain silent. The reader will not find in this thick book even a single clause that offers Gilad Sharon’s version of the role he may have played in the glut of corruption allegations that rocked the country, affairs that hovered as a dark shadow over his father’s term in office. Gilad does not share with his readers the reasons that, while his father was foreign minister, he accepted millions of shekels for “consulting services” from real estate developer David Appel, who was looking to build a gambling resort on a Greek island.
Neither will the reader find Gilad’s explanations for the millions of dollars that Austrian millionaire businessman Martin Schlaff is suspected of paying into Ariel Sharon's bank account as an alleged bribe. Nor does Gilad’s account of his involvement in the loan his father received from South African millionaire Cyril Kern, as part of another suspected bribery attempt, appear here. Neither is there any mention in the book of the affair of business dealings with Sharon confidant Arie Genger, who was controlling shareholder of Haifa Chemicals, for which Sharon was criticized by the State Comptroller.
Throughout the book, the author depicts himself as the shadow advisor who has offered his father wise counsel throughout his political career. Gilad steadfastly believed, in the face of many pessimists, that his father would become prime minister, and it is he who, according to this book, persuaded his father to appoint Benjamin Netanyahu as finance minister in 2003 and he who conceived the brilliant notion of unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
Passion for murdering Jews
Although Gilad Sharon is a member of the Kadima party, the views he expresses in the book could be better suited to the political ground that lies further to the right -- somewhere between Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman. The Palestinians, believes Gilad, have not overcome their passion for murdering Jews. He intersperses throughout the book an exhausting chronicle of acts of terror that have targeted Israelis since the 1950s. Here’s how he describes the death of shepherd Yohanan Nahari in the early 1950s: “A band of fedayun beat and stabbed Yohanan to death and made off with the kibbutz’s flock for Hebron ... the murder of a Jew, based on the old hate, followed by the looting of a Jew: the ideal Palestinian terrorist attack.” And this murderous terror, he preaches, must be fought intensively, just as his father fought it.
Throughout the book, Gilad takes pot shots at key figures in the Israeli leadership, mainly those who tried at one stage or another to reach a compromise with Israel’s Arab neighbors. He describes Olmert as an “arrogant and insolent” person, and his attempt to make peace with Syria as “a foolish act that freed the Syrians from their isolation and paved their way back into the family of nations.”
The book patronizingly ridicules Shimon Peres numerous times. “Every time he wanted to meet with Arafat or with one of his men, and this was denied him, his face would fall like a child whose toy was taken away,” writes Gilad. “Peres is a congenial man. You can drink vodka with him and enjoy his company, as we did on the farm. He knows how to appreciate a woman’s beauty and a good meal. Long years of visits in Paris strengthened these abilities. I remember one of his visits to the farm, late one night when he was a minister in my father’s government. Toward the end of their meeting, I pulled a bottle out of the freezer and took some smoked fish from the refrigerator. The atmosphere was good until the discussion turned toward his plans for peace with the Palestinians -- those steps he’d already had the chance to enact and those, thank God, he did not.”
Gilad continues, describing how he lit into Peres that evening, arguing that the Oslo process had brought with it only terror. “At a certain point my father stepped in to defend Peres. He scolded me for my manner of speaking, but I could see in his face and hear in his voice that he was rather pleased with what I had said.” In short, we have before us a book about the giant and his heir.
'Scary here at night'
The only times this book shines are when Gilad shares examples of his father’s wonderful, sarcastic sense of humor. In 1990, Sharon joined in to save the collapsing Shamir government after Shimon Peres’ “stinking maneuver,” the Labor Party’s unsuccessful attempt to withdraw from a unity government with Likud and form a government with Shas. One night, Sharon met in a forest with Avraham Shapira of Agudat Yisrael. “It’s a little bit scary here at night,” Shapira said. My father responded, “It would be a lot scarier if you were on your way through the sands of Rishon Lezion with Yitzhak Shamir,” Sharon replied, alluding to the death of Stern Gang commander Eliyahu Giladi, who is said to have been assassinated on Shamir’s orders.
In the 1996 election campaign, Ariel Sharon won several political leaders’ support for Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Likud candidate for premier. “‘There is a danger that our candidate is going to be elected,’ he would say ironically when he came home in the small hours of the night from yet another function or meeting on behalf of the Netanyahu campaign,” Gilad recalls.
When he was prime minister, Sharon was in the habit of teasing Olmert: “The most conspicuous interactions between my father and Olmert during cabinet meetings in which Olmert participated would occur when my father would fling a comment in Olmert’s direction, blessing him upon his return to the homeland from yet another visit abroad. Olmert, for his part, would pass on insulted notes.” When he visited Communist Poland, Sharon asked one of his friends to walk into his hotel room and translate the following words into Polish: “The president of Poland, a visionary leader, is in fact so visionary that he has placed a camera in my room. Luckily for him, [my wife] Lily has come along with me on this trip, making the viewing all the more interesting for him to watch.”
There is also one heartrending chapter, which describes the death of Ariel Sharon’s eldest son, Gur, who was killed in 1967, at age 11, by an accidentally discharged bullet. Sharon’s letters to his son reveal that he also had gentle and sensitive sides to his personality.
But these are isolated moments of grace in this book of carefully selected history. Ariel Sharon is a multidimensional figure who deserves a biography written by a skilled historian who would address all the complexities of his character and controversies in his life, as well as the changes in his views and in the way others viewed him. Gilad Sharon focuses on painting himself and his father in the best possible light, accuracy be damned, and he does that rather well.
Yechiam Weitz is a professor of Israeli history. His son, Haaretz journalist Gidi Weitz, has published numerous investigative articles about corruption allegations concerning Ariel Sharon.