To Understand Ariel Sharon, Look to His Mother

David Landau's biography of Ariel Sharon is essential reading for anyone who wants to get to know the man who believed it was his destiny to save the Jewish people.

Ariel Sharon as defense minister in June 1982, outside Beirut.
AP

“Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” (“Arik: Hayav shel Ariel Sharon”), by David Landau (Hebrew edition translated from the English by Guy Herling); Kinneret Zmora Bitan Publishers, 479 pages, 78 shekels

The first time that Ariel Sharon’s mother, Vera, visited her son’s home in the Negev, his wife, Lily, gave her a guided tour of Sycamore Ranch. At one point, they came to a low wall in which round openings had been cut for irrigation. “Aha,” the elderly Vera said with satisfaction. “Firing loopholes! Very good! You’ll be ready when the Arabs come!”

It’s impossible to understand Ariel Sharon (1928-2014) without knowing something about his mother. The late David Landau – who was editor-in-chief of Haaretz and the founder of the paper’s English edition – emphasizes the father’s influence in this biography, but I believe that Sharon’s singular character was his mother’s doing. Vera admired Russian culture. She certainly would have lived the life of a Russian intellectual had she not met the young Samuil Scheinerman, like her a refugee from Belarus, and married him in Tbilisi, Georgia. She agreed to go with him to remote and primitive Palestine, where, in 1922, they settled in Kfar Malal, a small village in the center of the country.

In her heart, Vera never came to terms with this decline in culture. She was a bitter, hard, cantankerous woman who quarreled with everyone in the village, whom she shunned and was shunned by. In later life, Sharon reminisced about the time, as a child, he was injured and bleeding, and Vera, but instead of taking him to the local Clalit clinic – which she was boycotting – carried him more than 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) to Kfar Sava, where a private doctor tended to him.

Landau tells this story, along with many others in “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon,” first published in English in 2014. He’s a diligent, meticulous biographer. No detail escapes him. The book is replete with numberless facts and anecdotes. Nothing is missing. Other than, perhaps, a hard look into his subject’s psyche. Landau doesn’t believe that a biographer needs to examine his protagonist’s psychological roots. I beg to differ.

Sharon’s distinctive personality was shaped in his childhood, when he lived in the shadow of his tough mother amid hostile relations with all the neighbors in an outlying village. To get to his high school in Tel Aviv, Sharon traveled to the Central Bus Station and then ran two kilometers to school, and afterward back, in order to save the bus fare. What emerged was a hard, self-reliant man who was accustomed to the enmity of his surroundings. He was an affable conversationalist with a sense of humor, but was also brutally cruel and ran roughshod over others without hesitation.

Savior complex

Above all, Sharon possessed an absolute belief that he was historically destined to save the Jewish people. He didn’t “think” or “believe” that – he just knew it. This was so obvious to him that he was genuinely dumbfounded when others failed to see it. All the rest followed from his total conviction in his historic role. In his eyes, anyone who interfered with his advancement was committing a crime against the Jewish people. He did not consider the lavish gifts he received from wealthy people expressions of corruption, but rather a contribution to the future of the State of Israel. This also explained his most important trait: the ability to make quick, tough decisions (in this, by the way, he resembled Yasser Arafat, whom he despised).

Sharon was deeply contemptuous of all politicians, including Menachem Begin (the first prime minister from Likud, who served from 1977 to 1983). Indeed, he towered head and shoulders above most of them. When I told Sharon that then-President Ezer Weizman had sunk into depression and was drinking heavily in the wake of the 1991 death of his son, Shaul, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “If someone isn’t capable of overcoming his emotions, he is not a man.” Weizman, in return, also savaged Sharon. “Arik,” he told me, “is like a container of acid. No matter where you put it, the acid will first eat away the container and then everything around it.”

Sharon was both magnetic and frightening. This explains one of the mysteries of his career. Despite the enormous influence he wielded on the image of the Israel Defense Forces, he never became chief of staff – even though officers far less capable than he were appointed. His soldiers sang “Arik, king of Israel,” but most of his colleagues and commanding officers in the IDF hated him with a passion.

Politicians were afraid of him. Simha Erlich – who served as finance minister 1977-1979 and was an important figure in his time – said of him, only half in jest, “If Arik becomes chief of staff, he’ll surround the Knesset with tanks and carry out a coup.” According to a story that made the rounds, once, Sharon convened his senior officers and announced, “At midnight tonight, we’ll seize power!” For a moment there was complete silence – before all the men erupted in laughter. David Ben-Gurion, who liked Sharon and invited him to his home, said he had the potential to be a great officer, if only he could overcome his propensity to lie.

I got to know Sharon closely at the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. A “war of the generals” had erupted over who bore responsibility for the prewar blundering and the war’s management. The two chief rivals – Sharon and Maj. Gen. Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen – came to my home in order to try and influence the coverage in Haolam Hazeh [the muckraking weekly news magazine edited by Avnery], as both of them appreciated the magazine’s influence on the young generation. Sharon came alone; Gonen showed up with a beautiful secretary and a small pistol.

Over the next nine years (until the first Lebanon war), I visited Sharon many times. He wanted to influence Haolam Hazeh, and I wanted to influence him. For many years I’d been looking for a general who would place himself at the head of the peace camp and persuade the public that only peace would ensure the country’s security for the generations ahead. At first I tried with “Talik” – Maj. Gen. Israel Tal – whose views were close to mine. But he refused to abandon his life project: the Merkava tank. I also tried with Weizman, but it was intimated to him that he was destined to become the country’s president (which he did, serving from 1993 to 2000).

Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon (L) inspects the honor guard during a visit to the central command military base in this picture taken on October 30, 1981 .
Reuters

Sharon was an odd candidate for this task. He was responsible for the 1953 mass murder in the West Bank village of Qibya, and for the mass executions of dozens of armed Palestinians who were seized in the Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War. But he also told me that during the events of Black September – the civil war in Jordan in 1970-71, between Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and the forces of King Hussein – he had suggested (like me) that Israel should come to the aid of the Palestinians against Hussein. He also told me about a plan he had to establish a Palestinian state on the east bank of the Jordan River. By the way, in regard to Qibya, Sharon related that it was not intentional murder. He said he thought the houses that were blown up were empty, and simply never imagined that civilians were hiding in them. I didn’t believe him.

The sculptor Ilana Goor occasionally held receptions in her Jaffa gallery. Her secret aim was to enable Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon and me to meet secretly for intimate conversations. In every meeting, I raised the subject of a Palestinian state. Rabin was totally against the idea, Sharon was more ambiguous.

Sharon was a mass of contradictions. He gorged himself on pork and oysters, but revealed that he was in favor of exempting thousands of yeshiva students from army service. He loathed Arafat, but after the Yom Kippur War asked me to arrange a meeting with him. This was in order to offer him the leadership of the Palestinian state that would supplant Jordan (Arafat’s aides laughed at this). For me, there was a vast contradiction between the astonishingly broad horizon of his ideas, and the narrow, pitiful knowledge on which they were based.

Person of the year

When Begin appointed him (with great reluctance) defense minister in 1981, I chose him as Haolam Hazeh’s Person of the Year and wrote an extensive article about him. He cooperated eagerly. In our lengthy conversations, he disclosed his plan to conquer Iran, which had recently undergone an Islamic revolution. Sharon was about to leave for a visit to the United States, to take part in the regular meetings between the chiefs of staff of the two countries. I asked him what he was going to suggest to the Americans, and he told me in secret about a grandiose plan: The Americans would store large quantities of weapons in Israel, which Israel would deploy only upon the death of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The IDF would then race through Jordan and Iraq, and overrun Iran for the United States. The Soviets would also want to seize the territory, but would hesitate when they discovered that the IDF was already there and could be dislodged only by way of a war. “No country is eager for war,” he said. “The Russians will conclude that they missed the boat and give up on the idea.”

Seeing my skeptical look, he commanded his aide, “Bring the maps!” I was shown a thick volume containing a detailed operational plan for the IDF to advance from Jordan to Iran. It was impressive, but the Americans apparently weren’t buying.

On that occasion, Sharon also showed me his plan to invade Lebanon. He also allowed me to publish it, provided I did not reveal the source. And so the entire plan appeared in Haolam Hazeh, in black and white, nine months before the war began in June 1982. You can still read it today.

The plan was breathtaking. The IDF would conquer Lebanon, and Sharon would anoint a Maronite-Christian dictator of the country, and expel the Palestinians to Syria. The Syrian ruler, President Hafez Assad, would then expel them to Jordan, where they would seize power, with Arafat becoming the ruler of a newly created Palestinian state. Palestine and Israel would work out a compromise in the West Bank – either division of the territory or a division of roles.

At first, one was swept away by the audacity of the plan. But on second thought, it was clear that the whole idea was based on a total misconception of the situation in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The fact is that when Sharon tried to implement the plan, nine months after I’d published it, the operation failed dismally.

The main problem was that Sharon did not understand either the Palestinians or their leader. It’s said that during World War II, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had a photograph of his German adversary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel – who was already a living legend – on his desk. When visitors asked him why, he replied that he asked himself at every moment what Rommel was thinking and planning. Sharon lacked that capability, and so his gargantuan plans failed.

I’m afraid that Landau, Sharon’s biographer, shares this lack. Like Sharon himself, he doesn’t understand the Arab side – or the driving forces behind Sharon’s sweeping moves. For example, Landau believes that Sharon changed his spots and executed the 2005 Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip because he wanted peace. There is no foundation for that. Sharon thought like a general: What is the main goal? And then afterward: Do the rest of the plans advance that goal or hamper it?

Sharon’s goal was always to fill the West Bank with settlements. Holding the Gaza Strip diverted forces from that goal and hampered it. Hence the disengagement. It wasn’t a means to peace, but to war. The settlers didn’t get it. Neither did Landau.

From all my visits, with my late wife, Rachel, to Sharon’s home, first in Rehovot and later to Sycamore Ranch, I remember the regular pattern. On the way home, Rachel and I would get into a fight. She, who had an excellent understanding of people, said, “The man is just stupid.” I replied, “He’s not stupid. His brain just works differently from ours.” Rachel would conclude, “You’re deluding yourself.”

Realizing that he wasn’t persuading Rachel, Sharon resorted to one of his skills: he was a world-class flatterer. I have a photo of him spoon-feeding Rachel in a restaurant in order to recommend her a certain dish.

Besides being an unctuous flatterer himself, he was also susceptible to flattery. On one occasion, in 1978, I was in the office of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the acting foreign minister of Egypt (and later the secretary-general of the United Nations), when a note was brought into him. He read it and then said to me, “Explain this to me!” The note said that the Israeli agriculture minister, Ariel Sharon, had declared that Israel’s security zone extended from the border of India to central Africa. I explained to him who Sharon was. “So how should we deal with him?” asked Boutros, one of the wisest people I’ve ever met. To which I replied, “Treat him the same way you’ve dealt with people like him for the past 8,000 years.”

A few weeks later, Egypt’s then-President Anwar Sadat invited Sharon to visit, and showed him around his private farm in his village. “None of the Egyptian experts has been able to solve the irrigation problems here,” Sadat complained, and asked Sharon whether he could devise a solution. Sharon mustered all the resources of the Agriculture Ministry and solved the problem within two weeks. Sadat invited him back to his village and said, in the presence of the whole Egyptian leadership, “Look at this man, he solved the problem that baffled all our experts.”

From that moment, Sharon’s approach to the peace talks with Egypt was transformed. Before this, he had created the so-called “towers in the air” – the Potemkin villages he erected in northern Sinai that were intended to sabotage the talks with Cairo. After the visit to Sadat’s farm, Sharon became an ardent supporter of peace with Egypt and subsequently was responsible for dismantling Yamit and the other Israeli settlements in northern Sinai.

Rachel remained unimpressed. But she was very fond of Lily Sharon, who for her part tried to enlist Rachel’s help in her favorite pastime: matchmaking. On one of our visits, Ariel Sharon took us to the kitchen, where Lily hosted us. When the door to the living room was opened briefly, I saw that the whole settlement-movement leadership was there. Sharon went back and forth between the two rooms. Symbolically, this continued until the first Lebanon war, when I met with Arafat in besieged Beirut. From that moment, Sharon and I became enemies again, and no longer said hello when we happened to run into each other.

Of all Landau’s stories, the one that moved me most was his description of Sharon’s loneliness in his final years, following Lily’s death and before he lapsed into a coma. It’s a portrayal of an old man (he was five years younger than me) who wants company in his home and invites employees for meals and conversation. King Lear comes to mind.

Landau has done a tremendous job researching his subject, and the book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know about the man Ariel Sharon. If I were asked to suggest an epigraph for the book, I’d choose another Shakespeare play, “Hamlet”: “He was a man, take him for all in all / I shall not look upon his like again.”

Uri Avnery is a former magazine editor and a former Knesset member.