Point of View Actively Agile Arik

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The best Ariel Sharon story ever is told by Asher Levy, a retired brigadier general who has known Sharon since the 1948 war. Sharon, then a skinny 20-year-old whose last name was Sheinerman, started out as a squad leader, with the virtual stripes of a corporal or a sergeant in the yet-to-be-born Israel Defense Forces. Levy was two echelons above, his company commander.

One day, following a fierce firefight, Arik approached Asher, bitterly criticizing the performance of his platoon leader - the intermediate echelon. Levy nodded. He, too, disapproved of the lieutenant, but times were tough and headquarters would not bother with a replacement. Don't worry, brightened Sharon, I'll replace him. Great idea, thought Levy. Sharon was a talented combat leader, the best noncommissioned officer in the battalion. Then another realization hit Levy: Soon the scene would be reenacted, with platoon leader Sharon going to the battalion commanding officer to complain about Levy's performance - and suggesting just the right candidate for the job, should it open up.

Levy spent years as a critic of Sharon's character and politics. He is now certain that the prime minister's Gaza pull-out initiative is for real. Regardless of its origins and motives, Sharon has become personally committed to it, as his pet project, and he does not like to be on the losing side and have his name appear along with the word "failure" in the same headline.

It has almost nothing to do with national security, or strategy, or party politics - and just about everything to do with the mind and soul of Ariel Sharon.

It may seem contradictory, or an irony of history, that the "father of the settlements" has turned around to uproot them, but this is an optical illusion. For Sharon, it is not whether he storms into enemy territory or away from it: The essence lies in the very movement, the swift and bloody campaign, east or west, north or south, in or out. Sharon does not have the courage of his convictions - he has the agility of his ambitions. By nature and upbringing, he cannot just stand there, he must do something. What's ideology got to do with it, the songwriter may ask, and the correct answer would be: little or nothing.

His proactive stance lifted him out of obscurity in the early 1950s, when he was picked quite by chance by the colonel who was commanding the military district of Jerusalem, to set up a small commando force in order to fight infiltrators. Sharon was just another available young major on study leave in the vicinity; had the situation arisen on the Lebanese border, for instance, someone else may have been charged with the mission. He made the best of it, serving IDF chief-of-staff Moshe Dayan and then defense minister David Ben-Gurion, back from a self-imposed exile to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker, in their aggressive military policy challenging the Arabs, Israel's foreign ministry headed by the moderate Moshe Sharett, and passive, hidebound IDF generals who forgot how to fight.

This was the making of Sharon's career, but also of his fall from grace. He was too aggressive even to Dayan's liking, inflicting casualties all around. He then had to cool his heels and bide his time, until two of Dayan's rivals - Levy Eshkol, then defense minister, and Yitzhak Rabin, then chief-of-staff - took him out of the freezer and gave him the coveted general's insignia, whereupon he minced no words in demanding from them both to go to war against a belligerent Egypt.

Sharon was restless and bent on having it his way, but within the system. Resigning on principle was not for him. He was in favor of a war of maneuver in the Sinai, rather than a war of attrition along the Suez Canal, but more than willing to accept a doctrine he abhorred as the price for getting the IDF's top field command, the Southern Front, rejected by his friend and doctrinal ally, Major- General Israel Tal. Not content with his own status quo, and threatening to bolt from the Labor Party (in the `50s, colonels and above were expected to be card-carrying members) to the opposition, he got the Southern Command.

Three years later, seeing his prospects for getting his dream job as chief-of-staff evaporate, he impulsively retired in order to remain eligible for the coming elections. He pressed Menachem Begin and others to form the Likud, was about to leave in disgust, thought better of it, was elected to the Knesset, but preferred keeping his reserve corps command to warming the opposition bench, went to work for Rabin, left to form his own failed party, Shlomzion, folded it into the Likud in return for a second-tier cabinet job, waited for Dayan and defense minister Ezer Weizmann to fall from Begin's favor, got the defense ministry, led Begin into Lebanon, was put back into the freezer, and waited longer than everybody else to gain the prime ministership ... and at long last do - what?

In the halcyon days of June 1967, the General Staff of which Sharon was a junior member knew the distinction between two terms: "occupation" and "settlements." Territories were to be occupied - that is, militarily held until a time when they would be swapped for peace. There was initially no doubt in Jerusalem that the "great powers," which forced Israel out of the northern Sinai in 1948 and out of all of Sinai plus Gaza in 1957, would soon do the same in the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank. When pressure failed to materialize, as the Arabs refused to pay for land with peace, a new mirage appeared - settlements as "facts on the ground," the real estate equivalent to ships as facts on the high sea, ostensibly liable to go down in a storm. And rather than Nahal infantry units being issued orders to set up a settlement or, conversely, to pull out as they did in 1957 in two places in Sinai, civilians were allowed, even encouraged, to become government-sanctioned squatters in military territory.

It did not take Sharon 37 years to realize the folly of this policy. It took him 73 years to become prime minister, to finally make it to the top of the heap (except for President Bush), with no platoon leader above him, but still anxious to leave the trenches and go on raids, raise hell, damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead, or back.

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