Talented, but a Liar

Recently declassified letters reveal that machinations and manipulations are not new to the army's highest ranks, and give new insight into one of the lowest moments in Ariel Sharon's career.

Five years ago, after five years as prime minister, Ariel Sharon fell into a sleep, never to awaken. Until then, every takeoff of his had ended in a crash, and every crash, in a takeoff. Sharon had been GOC Southern Command, twice a division commander in wartime, defense minister, before ultimately becoming prime minister. The most crucial period in his life lasted for about three years, between the summer of 1953 and the fall of 1956, from the founding of Unit 101 and its integration into Paratroop Battalion 890, until he assumed command of the Paratroop Brigade, during the Sinai Campaign.

Sharon was nurtured during that period by Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion, the latter shielding him even when Dayan and his successors at the General Staff became alienated from him. Talented but a liar, officers said of him. A liar but talented, Ben-Gurion would have retorted. The truth was always a guiding light for Ben-Gurion, but sometimes he let the light go out.

Aviram, Ben-Gurion and Sharon - Avraham Vered/Bamahane
Avraham Vered/Bamahane

The Boaz Harpaz affair is like the Traveler's Prayer compared to the intrigues that surrounded Sharon, most of them of his own making, though some of them directed against him. He undermined his subordinates, from battalion commander to deputy brigade commander. Two of them, Mordechai Gur and Rafael Eitan, went on to win the position Sharon desired in vain, chief of staff. A third, Yitzhak Hofi, became head of the Mossad.

The tensions that characterized the troika of Defense Minister Sharon, Chief of Staff Eitan and Mossad chief Hofi reverberated in the first Lebanon War. At that time Sharon also came up against Col. Eli Geva, the son of an old rival of his, Maj. Gen. Yosef Geva.

These things are known, in a general way, but have hardly appeared in formal documentation. This lacuna is now being filled by two letters which have surfaced, dating to the end of Sharon's service as brigade commander of the paratroops and the appointment of his successor, Menachem "Menn" Aviram, a friend of his and a graduate of a military academy in France, whose appointment to the position he supported.

"Shalom, Menn," wrote Sharon to Aviram in July of 1957. "There is no need to worry about the appointment. I suggest, and this is just between us, that you take with a pinch of salt [battalion commander Aharon] Davidi's information concerning what is happening in the brigade. It seems to me he has had conversations with a number of our commanders in which criticism of this appointment of yours was voiced and since both of us are well acquainted with 'Davidi the fox,' it is good you should know this. You know the Israel Defense Forces as well as I do, and you can well imagine the jealousy and in its wake the wave of criticism expressed about the appointment."

The critics, continued Sharon, were "just a few people, with whom I too have recently had a number of incidents. The moving and organizing spirit behind those 'incidents' was Haka [Hofi's nickname], who had help mostly from Motta [Gur] and a bit from Davidi. (I faced a difficult situation for a while. )"

The appointment of Gur as deputy brigade commander, with Hofi's expected departure ("he took offense at being passed over"), "should ease the professional side and getting to know the people, but is also liable to make it difficult because of his character, because of the successes (from company commander to deputy brigade commander within a year and a half ), which sometimes go to his head and lead to some arrogant behavior, in no small way, and because of his attitude toward you. But he is the chief of staff's darling nowadays, and this is what has mainly influenced his appointment."

"I am writing all these things to you not for the sake of gossip," noted Sharon, hastening to forestall a possible suspicion. "In general, except for a few people, you will have a good welcome here. It all depends on you. To the extent you come in full of energy, initiatives, evince leadership and are prepared to ride roughshod over all kinds of pishers who raise their heads here - your success is ensured. Regards to the family from me and Margalit. Yours, Arik."

This letter had been preceded two weeks earlier by a letter from Uri Goren to Aviram, a boyhood friend of his. "Arik: His situation today is really tragic (no exaggeration )," wrote Goren about Sharon. "After all, he established the brigade and brought a fighting spirit into the IDF. In the opinion of all of us he is a brilliant and daring planner, sharp and with vision. I and the whole army had the feeling that he and his battalion commanders - Raful [Eitan], Motta, Davidi - were an ideal team for the job. After the Sinai Campaign, quiet and thorough sabotage began against him, by exactly those three, with Haka's full participation and perhaps 'orchestration.'"

According to Goren's letter, the cabal accused Sharon of "cowardice, preaching that commanders should go in [to battle] at the head of their men while giving the opposite example, and more. It may be that some of the facts they presented were partially correct, such as his place in the fighting in Sinai and especially at the Mitla Pass, as well as additional facts I heard from Motta and Danny Matt about the 101 and 890 period. Today none of them remembers the wealth of what is good in him and they are 'slaying' him in the cruelest way. The man has without a doubt done great things. I admire him and I think his colleagues the battalion commanders are trying to humiliate him. He understands he has to go. The fact that his departure is planned and the name of his replacement is known is making the matter look routine and positive and not like a 'putsch.'"

Of Hofi, Goren wrote: "A moderating factor between Arik's stormy temperament and the objective reality. His relations with Arik are awful. Arik tends to hurt him on various occasions and he knows how to take this, but with typical quiet he requites him afterwards by conversations with staff officers and a GOC [Southern Command, at that time Zvi Zur] and more and more and more. Though he is loyal in carrying out orders he is entirely disloyal personally."

Raid on the police

In early 1958, before Ben-Gurion had to deal with Sharon and Sharon's tense relations with the new chief of staff, Haim Laskov, the affair broke out concerning Arik Regev, the deputy commander of battalion 890. Regev, at his own initiative and without reporting to anyone, raided an Israel Police station in Beit Guvrin, surprising the policemen and shackling them, as an exercise in a surprise raid. This exercise could have ended in disaster had the police opened fire.

Regev was court-martialed. His dismissal was certain. The new brigade commander, Aviram, however, who appreciated Regev's quality as a commander, invited himself to the court and surprised it with testimony on behalf of the accused. Regev had reported to him, improvised the brigade commander, and it was he who had forgotten to inform the Central Command, not Regev. The judges accepted his testimony, exonerated Regev and instead punished Aviram for the action.

Regev went on to excel afterwards as operations officer for the Central Command when he directed the battle for Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, and had he not been killed in battle as commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade, he would certainly have been appointed commander of the paratroops and would have advanced to the highest command positions.

Upon hearing the testimony from Aviram, who lied in order to cover for Regev, Laskov dismissed him from his position as brigade commander. Upon his return home from a weekend vacation he was surprised to find a note saying he had been summoned to a meeting with Ben-Gurion.

"Why did you lie?" Ben-Gurion asked Aviram. "After all, the whole thing was that we had wanted to appoint a brigade commander who tells the truth, not like Arik."

A moment before his fate was decided, Ben-Gurion, as was his habit, asked him: "Aviram, what was your name previously?"

"Abramowitz, from Rishon [Letzion]," replied Aviram.

"Really? Do you have relatives who worked in the winery?"

"My grandfather, Mordecai."

"A tall fellow? I know him!" exclaimed Ben-Gurion. Aviram was restored to his position, much to Laskov's ire. He evaded dismissal, but he was given the rank concomitant with the position, colonel, only after two years on the job.

'Direct access to me'

In the spring of 1959, Sharon refused to attend a discussion initiated by his commander, General Staff training department head Yosef Geva. "I don't have time for you," Sharon told Geva, who sent him packing home. Sharon complained bitterly to Ben-Gurion.

"Arik boasts to his friends that he doesn't care what they do at headquarters, because he has direct access to me," wrote Ben-Gurion in his journal in mid-1959. Laskov's anger and his "anxiety" in the face of Sharon's influence, as Ben-Gurion put it, was "baseless." The defense minister continued: "Arik didn't talk about himself at all - although I understood he is not pleased with his current status and position - but rather he lectured on his thoughts concerning the IDF. The discipline in the IDF is flawed and Arik admitted that he too is among the sinners but his studies in England set him right. The lack of discipline is at all ranks, and it is necessary to persist in energetic measures to strengthen it."

Ben-Gurion called for "increasing the army's importance. When I said the nation ascribes importance to the army, [Sharon] said: Yes, but the army itself doesn't. This, perhaps, is an apt observation."

On this occasion, according to Ben-Gurion's journal, the 31-year-old Sharon expounded his military philosophy. "In his opinion we are wasting time and money on training for reserve soldiers - more work should be invested in commanders. The commander makes the difference. The reserves can be trained a few days before the battle - we will always know a few weeks before the war that it is approaching. The navy is unnecessary, except for submarines and Flotilla 13 [special operations ]. It is costing millions. It is better to invest this money in the air force. This force is intended not only for destroying the enemy's air force but also for attacking the enemy's tanks and other forces. The number of brigades should be reduced from 26 to 10 or 12, and they should be enhanced.

"Every brigade will get an armored battalion, a Caterpillar battalion and an infantry battalion," wrote Ben-Gurion. "It should be assumed our wars will last for only two days, because the United Nations will not give us more time and we have to win within a short time. This is possible with reinforced strike forces: air force, paratroops and tanks, not against the enemy's tank force - because this is bigger than us quantitatively, and it will be fought by our air force, but rather for the swift occupation of Damascus or some other similar destination. The commands must deal only with defending the borders but the strike brigades should be put directly under the General Staff. He will submit his ideas to me in writing two days from now. His conversation reminded me of the character of Orde Wingate."

Geva, too, was summoned for a talk. To his surprise, Ben-Gurion asked little about Sharon; he made do with Geva's proposal to appoint Sharon commander of the infantry school, Training Base 3, and took an interest in the training department head's opinion about Syria's borders. Geva did not identify Ben-Gurion's hidden agenda: to bring about, together with Turkey (whose general staff was pursuing secret contacts with IDF operations directorate head Avraham Tamir ), a war against Syria that would topple it as a state entity and as a military enemy. Sharon, judging by the mention of "occupying Damascus," had better informaton from his sources.

Ben-Gurion's journal documents another conversation, with Laskov. "I spoke with him about Arik. I suggested talking with him. He has negative characteristics and also welcome qualities. I would like to give him a chance to return to the straight and narrow, because he is an important soldier. I told Haim I would talk to him about Training Base 1 and Training Base 3, but I will leave the decision in Haim's hands. However, I want to know Arik's attitude, and also whether he promises to behave correctly and accepts the army's judgment. When Arik came to me he heard the three proposals regarding him (Training Base 1, Training Base 3, commander of a reserve brigade ) - but this is a dismissal, and not a just one. I said to him, how will you be able to work with Geva when you don't obey him. He admitted he hadn't entirely behaved correctly, but [said] he didn't deserve dismissal."

And another conversation, a few days later: "I invited Arik to come to me this morning. He submitted a reasoned complaint about the chief of staff's attitude toward him. His claims are correct in part. There is something in him of Wingate - apart from Wingate's moral character. I told him I agree with many of his claims (I didn't go into detail ) but he is ignoring the difference between our army and a British army. They were an imperial army, part of which was stationed in Sudan, part in the Far East, part in Europe and more. Our army is small and concentrated in a small country. Every little thing or big thing is known to everyone. There is gossip. If an officer is allowed to infringe discipline - because of his positive qualities - this will be seen as favoritism. Just as in the state, so in the army: The need of the collective and the needs of the individual must be taken into account. And I advise him to accept the judgment with love [accepting command of Training Base 3]. His role will not end with this. Arik took these things as a great blow and nearly cried."