What Turned Ariel Sharon Into Israel's Greatest Hope?

Abraham Rabinovich reviews David Landau’s biography of the force of nature who became Israel’s 11th prime minister. It’s a book that asks the question: What turned the warrior 'without principles or any moral norms’ into a respected statesman and the hope of a nation?

Abraham Rabinovich
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Ariel Sharon
Ariel SharonCredit: AP
Abraham Rabinovich

“Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon,” by David Landau

Alfred A. Knopf, 656 pages, $35

The copy of Ariel Sharon’s biography arrived on the eve of his funeral. The nation was in mourning and there was hardly an ill-tempered word in the media to disturb the saint-like aura hovering over the deceased.

With uncanny timing, “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” had come to remind us that the beloved father figure being buried outside Sycamore Farm had for most of his life been someone else.

Time has softened the edge of Sharon’s once fearsome reputation as a force of nature who bulled his way through anything that stood in the path of his ambitions. “He is a man without principles, without human feelings, and without any moral norms whatsoever.” This from a political ally 35 years ago, Simha Ehrlich, one of the heads of the Likud, which Sharon had cobbled together.

Yossi Beilin, with whom Sharon liked to share political gossip in the Knesset in the 1990s, despite their polar political differences, sums up the man he knew then as “the epitome of the ugly Israeli.”

The heart of this exceptional biography is the transformation of Sharon from a loose cannon – as menacing to his allies as to his enemies -- into a respected statesman, the hope of a nation.

Author David Landau, who was a longtime diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and later editor-in-chief of Haaretz, brings to the task a knowing eye and credible sources. Sharon was felled by a stroke before Landau could interview him for the book.

The author does not hesitate to deal with Sharon’s dark side – darker than most of us knew.

During the period of retaliation raids in the 1950s, he was regularly rebuked for the high number of casualties – among his own men but also on the Arab side, where disproportionate killing would lead to escalation and international condemnation. From his life as a gentleman farmer, we read of a formal complaint by an Israeli Arab detained by a guard for hunting on Sharon’s ranch or near it. The man alleges that Sharon, when he arrived at the scene, took away his rifle, punched him in the eye, then kicked him hard in the groin and tried unsuccessfully to do it again before warning him, “I’ll finish you off.”

Sharon was capable of considerable charm, even contrition, if that would help further his cause. However, if incensed, he would not hesitate to lock horns even with his patron, Prime Minister Menachem Begin. When Ezer Weizman quit as defense minister in 1980, asserting that Begin’s government had no interest in peace, Sharon, a junior minister, loudly demanded the post for himself. Begin told him, “Don’t raise your voice.” Sharon turned on him. “Don’t provoke me. I’m not like the last defense minister, who just sat quietly when he was attacked. I hit back.”

Sharon indulged shamelessly in McCarthyite demagoguery. Attacking Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in a Haredi magazine for sponsoring the Oslo Accords, he termed them “a couple of collaborators who in any normal country would be put on trial.” He would nevertheless continue to share a close relationship with both men, on and off, in an old boy network. In 1988, he attacked Rabin, his colleague in the Likud-Labor government, at a cabinet meeting, for his failure as defense minister to suppress the first intifada. Offended, Rabin reminded Sharon that he, Sharon, was the only defense minister ever removed by a commission of inquiry (after the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982). Sharon hit back as low as he could, referring to Rabin’s known predilection for whiskey. “This happens to him sometimes,” said Sharon to the assembled ministers. “Mainly when he’s not sober enough.”

Late love

Astonishingly, we get to love Sharon by the end of Landau’s account. Before that, however, he passes before us as reckless, ruthless, mean, violent, mendacious, a glutton, and perhaps even not as courageous as he should be. (Future Chief of Staff Mordechai “Motta” Gur, for one, would never forgive Sharon for having, as Paratroops Brigade commander, sent Gur and his men into the Mitla Pass in 1956, where they suffered high casualties on what was a needless mission. Sharon himself did not enter the pass.)

Apart from that episode, Sharon was generally acknowledged as the best field commander in the army. He was as ornery with his military superiors as he would be with politicians in later life. In the most stressful period of the Yom Kippur War, both Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar and Gen. Haim Bar-Lev, acting commander of the Egyptian front, wanted to dismiss him for insubordination. They were blocked by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who preferred a high-spirited stallion, as he put it, to more cautious generals.

Sharon could be unpleasant with his peers as well. When a hard-pressed brigade commander in Gen. Avraham Adan’s division asked a nearby battalion commander from Sharon’s division to come to his aid, Sharon refused to let the battalion go, even though it was not in combat at the time, preferring to keep his forces intact. This would not prevent him a few days later from asking Adan to urgently send him a battalion. Adan did so unhesitatingly.

Sharon’s moral compass was often low on batteries. Hints of blatant corruption would accompany him and family members well into his prime ministership. When he sued Time Magazine for saying he had urged Christian Phalange leaders to take revenge before sending them into the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Sharon told reporters that he only sought to refute a libel that reflected not just on him but on Israel and the Jewish people. If the jury awarded pecuniary damages, he said, it would all go to a fund to protect Jewish rights around the world. In an out-of-court settlement in 1985, Sharon received a whopping $200,000. Writes Landau: “Sharon kept the lot.”

When Benjamin Netanyahu formed his first government, foreign minister-designate David Levy said he would not serve if Sharon was not given a ministry. Netanyahu capitulated. When Sharon formed his own government a few years later, he informed Levy that he had no portfolio to offer him. “Sorry, David.” As for Sharon’s opinion of Netanyahu, Landau quotes a senior Likud official as saying that his “attitude towards Bibi was always one of contempt and revulsion.”

While laying bare his subject’s excesses, Landau attempts to mitigate Sharon’s responsibility for the two major policies that made him hated by the left -- the rampant construction of settlements and the 1982 Lebanon War. In both cases, he argues, it was Begin who was the initiator and Sharon the executor.

Knowing what we do about the two men, this is not very persuasive. Landau himself shows how the dynamic between initiator and executor worked in the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. The year before, Begin had proposed bombing the facility. At a cabinet meeting a few months later, Sharon passed a note to Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan to ask why nothing was happening. Eitan replied “You’ve got to keep pressing.” Sharon duly sent Begin a note and got a noncommittal reply. Three weeks later Sharon sent a more urgently worded note. “… It’s a matter of life or death. I can’t understand these delays.” The next day they spoke by phone. “I can’t sleep at night,” said Sharon. In reply, Begin said, “Your words are not without influence on me.” On June 7, the attack was successfully carried out.

In a similar vein, three months after Begin’s first government took office, in 1977, it was Sharon, as chairman of the ministerial settlement committee, who presented the cabinet with a comprehensive plan for settlement building throughout the West Bank, a plan he would vigorously hammer into reality in an attempt to make it impossible to ever remove Israeli control of the territory.

‘Peace that will protect us’

When did he shed his hawkishness? The public began taking notice in the campaign leading up to his first election as prime minister in 2001, when Sharon was 73. “It was probably one of the more brilliant makeovers in advertising history,” writes Landau. Television ads showed him lifting his grandchildren or striding across his farm in boots or looking into the camera and saying, “I will bring peace that will protect us,” as a girls choir sang in the background. His close aide Uri Shani believed that Sharon at this point was just playing to the gallery. Only after becoming prime minister, Shani believes, did his worldview begin to change. “What you see from here, you don’t see from there,” said Shani, invoking the old refrain.

However, Sharon’s campaign manager and long-time friend, advertising executive Reuven Adler, said the shift had been going on for years and came to a head during the campaign itself. “I knew for sure that everything was changing when he approved the slogan ‘Only Sharon will bring peace.’ He looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, ‘Go with it.’ I asked him if he was sure he knew what it entailed. He said, ‘I know. Go with it.’ It was entirely clear to me, and to him, that this was not just an election slogan.”

His military secretary, Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, new to Sharon’s circle in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, found him a surprise – “very different from his image, much more realistic and controlled. I thought restraining him would be part of my job. But this was not the simplistic advocate of brute force that one had been led to believe.”

If there is a key to Sharon’s Jekyll/Hyde character it might be one provided by his secretary, Marit Danon. Lonely after the death of his wife, Sharon would often linger in his office after work and chat with Danon, who had also been secretary to his four predecessors. He spoke about his hardscrabble life growing up in the village of Kfar Malal. “He was very talkative, always about Kfar Malal, always about how hard it was. I’m no psychologist but his pain sounded authentic. How his mother’s hands were worn rough from work; how he himself had to work so hard with his father in the fields; how his family was ostracized; how he never went to other kids’ houses and always wondered what they were like inside.”

Danon’s insight suggests why he became what Beilin would describe as a paranoid and a haunted figure.

Former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, an old friend, attributed the change he saw in Sharon as prime minister at least partly to his acceptance by world leaders, particularly George Bush and Tony Blair. “From a persona non grata he became a legitimate and eventually an admired leader. By the second year he felt he was being made welcome. This had a fantastic effect. He felt that the world expected something from him and from him alone.”

In an interview in Haaretz English Edition last month, Landau said he believed Sharon’s major legacy is what he did in the Yom Kippur War, particularly the crossing of the Suez Canal. I would beg to differ.

Although Sharon performed superbly in the war, it is presumptuous to believe that no one else but him could have led the canal crossing. Uri Ben-Ari, deputy commander of the southern front and one of the army’s most respected combat officers, had been mooted to replace Sharon when his dismissal was being considered. There were also other capable officers, including Adan. Sharon’s ebullient personality and his openness to the press, which sought him out, left the self-effacing and media-shy Adan in the shadows. But Adan’s role in the Suez crossing was critical. It was men operating at his orders who extricated the bridge pontoons with prodigious effort from a miles-long traffic jam at night and got them to the canal on time, and it was his tanks, in a rare desert ambush, that destroyed a large Egyptian force trying to pinch off the bridgehead. After the crossing, it was Adan, not Sharon, who encircled the Egyptian Third Army, obliging Cairo for the first time to enter into direct negotiations with Israel.

Sharon’s major legacy, I would suggest, is the one action that probably no one but he could have pulled off – the bloodless “disengagement” from Gaza. As prime minister, he saw resolution of the Palestinian issue as urgent. He had abandoned his long-held position that the place for a Palestinian state was Jordan, not the West Bank and Gaza. “We need to free ourselves from control over three and a half million Palestinians, whose numbers are rising all the time,” he told the Knesset. For the first time publicly he described the West Bank and Gaza territories not as “liberated” or “administered” but as “occupied.”

The withdrawal from Gaza was important not only in itself but for the precedent it set regarding the West Bank. As Landau writes, Sharon demonstrated that settlements can be dismantled and settlers evacuated without bloodletting. Had Sharon not been struck down, Landau believes he would have directed further evacuations on the West Bank.

Landau is an elegant writer, but the book tapers off rather flatly with a description of Sharon’s hospitalization eight years ago. In a future edition, the book deserves to end with a roll of drums and a peroration on the driven figure, a villain/hero who showed Israel that it could yet save itself from becoming the Jewish-minority state that he himself had almost made inevitable.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East” (Schocken Books).

Former Haaretz editor-in-chief David LandauCredit: Moti Milrod

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