When Ariel Sharon was first elected prime minister, recounts the author of his brand new biography, the news did not go down well in the writer’s own household – to say the least.
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“This was one of the many apartments in Jerusalem where Ariel Sharon’s accession to power triggered serious conversation about possible emigration,” recalls David Landau, the former editor-in-chief of Haaretz and author of “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon.” “People holding senior positions in this household said ‘How can we live here with him as prime minister? This is going to embarrass us too much as Jews.’”
Though an avowed leftist himself, Landau says that he never belonged to the “hatred choir” in Israel that was known to demonize Sharon. In fact, the more deeply he delved into his subject, the more he became convinced that the controversial leader had been unfairly maligned over the years, and not only by the left.
The exhaustive 656-page-long biography, published last week by Alfred A. Knopf, is hitting the bookstands at an opportune time, needless to say. But it is mere coincidence, said Landau in an interview this week, that the book came out just days before Sharon’s death. “There’s no connection,” he says. “It was supposed to come out on January 14 and they pushed it a few days earlier when they saw what was going on.”
The prestigious New York publishing house commissioned Landau to write the book while he was serving as editor of Haaretz, about a year into Sharon’s tenure as prime minister. But by the time he left the newspaper in 2008 and had time to devote his full attention to the project, Sharon was already three years into his comatose state. Landau did have the opportunity, however, to reveal his plans to the late prime minister. “We had a meeting in 2005 after the disengagement, and I told him that I’d been commissioned to write his biography, but I’d rather wait until I’d finished my job as editor and he’d finished his as prime minister. He laughed.”
The longtime Israel correspondent for The Economist, Landau previously collaborated with President Shimon Peres on two books – Peres’s own memoir, “Battling For Peace,” and the biography of Israel’s first prime minister “Ben-Gurion: A Political Life.” He is also the author of “Piety and Power,” an account of the ascendancy of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.
Landau’s first manuscript of the new book, he volunteers, was rejected out of hand. In fact, it wasn’t even read. “They told me it was much too long and that they would not accept a manuscript of this length,” he recalls, trying to explain how a writer with his experience allowed himself to get so carried away that he wrote double the amount of text commissioned. “Sharon is such a complex character, and I wanted to respect his complexity. In other words, I didn’t want anyone to be able to accuse me of any particular angles.”
Was this a more difficult book for you to write because of all the controversy surrounding Sharon and the need to do more fact checking?
“Definitely. I sat and wrote with the very acutely conscious knowledge that I am liable to be accused in Israeli reviews, or in articles in the newspapers and on television, that this is a whitewash, that I was somehow charmed – as others have been - and won over.”
Landau also understood he might be setting himself up because of the staunch support Haaretz had shown, under his stewardship, for Sharon’s plan to dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gaza. “This made my situation even more scary – the thought that people would accuse me of being his whitewasher, of writing something that serves his interest. Would I be able to defend myself?”
Landau began conducting some preliminary interviews right after Sharon had fallen into a coma, discovering for the first time the extent of the late prime minister’s legendary charm. “Some of the people I interviewed could barely speak,” he recalls. “Immediately a lump went up in their throat because this was in the early months, but I was able to see how the people around him just loved him. That’s not something that you can ignore. These are disparate people from different backgrounds, and somehow he did it to them. Again, it was the way he behaved. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to exercise a magic spell.”
For Sharon’s enemies on the left, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon has long been perceived as his worst sin. And even after he uprooted every last Jewish settlement in Gaza and came to recognize the need for a Palestinian state, many of them continued to bear him a huge grudge. Landau, though, distanced himself from the start from the tendency within his own camp to vilify Sharon while allowing Prime Minister Menachem Begin to get off lightly.
“Even before I’d done any serious research,” Landau says, “there were things I wasn’t comfortable with, and I hardly knew why. I had a feeling during and immediately after the war – and I spent a lot of time in reserve duty then, so I had plenty of time to think – that there was something that evolved there around Sharon that I wasn’t happy with. I felt he was being victimized, and I felt there was something wrong here. A country doesn’t take action like that and then immediately find a punch bag to blame everything that went wrong on. After I took on this book and began reading and listening, I found myself more vulnerable to Sharon’s main argument, which was that there was a prime minister in this country and that he, Sharon, wasn’t the only one making policy and executing policy.”
Landau argues that there was a “deliberate and successful spinning attempt” immediately after the Lebanon War, which was designed to brainwash the public into thinking that Begin was as mentally dysfunctional during the war as he was in its aftermath, and therefore, Sharon was able lead him by the nose. This attempt to paint Sharon as the main villain, he says, was backed by two seemingly unconnected sources.
“You had this fantastic coalition of the people around Begin whose interest was to shove as much as they could, starting with Sabra and Shatila, onto Sharon, and then you had those of us on the left, for whom Sharon was the ultimate bête noire. I hope that whoever reads my book and reads the evidence that I bring will at least be prepared to reconsider that version of events – that there was a Sharon who somehow managed to almost hypnotize an entire government and a prime minister. It didn’t make sense at the time and it doesn’t make sense now.”
There seems to be a consensus in Israel in recent days that the good in Ariel Sharon outweighed the bad. Would you agree?
“I’ll agree in this respect only –I would say that for the nation of Israel, the No. 1 point in Ariel Sharon’s legacy to us, as far as I can see, is what he did in the Yom Kippur War.
"I can’t claim any military expertise at all, but I talked to enough people, people not beholden to Ariel Sharon, to become convinced that he – he and nobody else – he turned the war around. Many people preferred to put it this way: If it hadn’t been for him, they don’t think Israel would have crossed the Suez Canal. He demonstrated or broadcast the kind of leadership, or the kind of toughness, during that night which, had that been absent, they may not have crossed. It’s so difficult today after a generation of relative confidence in our security, but during the Yom Kippur War, there was a genuine fear for the existence of the state. So when the war was turned around, when we had crossed the canal, I knew enough to know that this is it. The State of Israel owes him that, and I still hold that his main legacy to the State of Israel is what he did in the Yom Kippur War. That’s what’s actually comes out of my research.”
Also tipping the balance in Sharon’s favor, in Landau’s view, was the disengagement plan he implemented as prime minister in August 2005, in the face of overwhelming opposition from his former political allies on the Israeli right.
“The disengagement was a great success, even if the Bibi spin machine, which is one of the greatest spin machines on earth, has managed to persuade a lot of people here in Israel that the disengagement has caused or created the shelling of Sderot. But that’s because people forget that before the disengagement, not only Sderot but also the Jewish settlements in Gaza, were being hit.”
Had he not collapsed eight years ago, are you convinced he would have continued dismantling settlements?
“Absolutely, and I hope that people who read my book will be convinced that even though Sharon said there would be no more unilateral pullouts, I think that anyone preparing to vote for Sharon’s Kadima party back then felt that his public statements on the matter were for the birds. If you voted Kadima, you assumed there would be more.”
Another impetus for Sharon to carry on, maintains Landau, was that he was starting to like the idea of being liked. “My very strong feeling, and it’s well backed by evidence, is that he was absolutely devastated – devastated in a favorable sense – by the way he was perceived at the United Nations General Assembly in September right after the disengagement. This was a man who was once a persona non grata and had now suddenly becoming a popular world figure. You know, that’s not easy to withstand. That, too, had an effect on him. This was part of the revolution taking place in our current prime minister. He was a man who was acutely sensitive to the world. When he said what you see from here you don’t see from there, he also meant the world. When you’re a minister in charge of a small segment of Israel, you don’t need to take account of world reaction. But as prime minister, you do.”
Tony Blair said at his funeral that contrary to the popular view, Sharon never went from being a man of war to a man of peace and that deep down all that ever concerned him was the good of the nation. So was there really a transformation here?
“That’s incontrovertible. There are statements he made as prime minister which were heretical for a leader of the Likud. The use of the word occupation, for example. What I think that Blair meant is that he had no revolution about the Arabs. His revolution was about the Jews – he began realizing that the threat, the danger to the independent Jewish sovereign state was not tanks or guns – but the occupation, something we on the left have felt for years. He began to understand that deeply, and that’s a revolution.”