Was Ariel Sharon a Warmonger or Man of Peace? New Israeli TV Series Reaches a Surprising Conclusion

Levi Zini struggled to raise money for his three-part series on the late right-wing leader – perhaps, he believes, because his show paints the former prime minister’s final actions in a more generous political light

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Ariel Sharon. From creator of settlements to hate figure of settlers.
Ariel Sharon. From creator of settlements to hate figure of settlers.Credit: David Silverman / Hulton Archive
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

In 2007, with Ariel Sharon still lying in a coma after his stroke the previous year, I took a trip to Cairo. After 24 hours, I stopped trying to conceal the fact I was Israeli, which then caused every cabdriver to start our conversation with the same question: “How is ‘President’ Sharon?”

It was immediately followed by a question displaying a touch of fear. “Is he still alive? Could he still come back?”

Of all of the leaders – both military and political – in Israel’s history, it seems that Sharon was perceived as a particularly threatening figure. In Levi Zini’s new three-part series “Sharon” (the final part is on Kan’s Channel 11 this week, and it's also available on the Kan website, in Hebrew), political strategist Eyal Arad describes him as a neighborhood bully who was elected as prime minister in 2001, during the second intifada, because he was perceived as someone who would frighten the Arabs. Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi says the Arabs saw him as a demon.

As for left-wingers and the peace camp, Sharon was also for many years seen as a danger – a figure over whom the heavy shadow of the first Lebanon war in the early 1980s was cast and, later, when he paid a visit to the Temple Mount as leader of the opposition in 2000, sparking the second intifada.

When filmmaker Avi Mograbi made the documentary “How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Arik Sharon” in 1997, no one had to explain the source of that fear. For the left, Sharon was a symbol of the quest for power and dangerous brutality of the Israeli right. It was impossible to imagine that in his final days as premier, Sharon would become an object of hatred to residents of the settlements, the project that flourished during Sharon’s reign as housing minister.

In this series, Zini tries to confront this hatred of Sharon, which developed on the right after he led the Israeli “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and evacuation of its settlements in August 2005. For Zini, the disengagement – which was the final major political act in the life of Sharon, who fell into a coma some six months afterward and died eight years later at age 85 – is the prism through which his worldview should be examined.

“I tried throughout the film to prove that there was thought there, that there was a desire” to do it, Zini says. “When thinking about what kind of Jewish state he wanted here, Sharon in his own way chose separation. The disengagement was only one stage of a major plan that began with the construction of the [West Bank] separation barrier. The barrier was forced on him. He didn’t want it. But the moment he began, he drew our eastern border, as he saw fit. One can argue about the route, but one can’t argue with the fact that it’s a drawing of the border. I welcome the fact that a leader arose who decided that borders must be drawn for the State of Israel.”

Zini’s attempt to show that the disengagement was all part of a larger plan is a response to the idea that settlers managed to implant: That Sharon carried out the disengagement in order to divert public attention from the police investigations being conducted against him at the time. “People are still convinced that at this point Eyal Arad and his gang were like cosmeticians who reshaped Sharon’s image, and the disengagement was designed to rescue his good name. Every attempt to repeat the facts and to prove that this was not the case, encountered opposition.

Levi Zini.Credit: Hadas Parush

“The desire to believe that Sharon implemented the disengagement in order to save himself makes it possible to avoid discussing the basic question that hovers over the Israeli right: What to do with 2.5 million Palestinians who are living on this land and consider it holy? The State of Israel tries to ignore this question. The two right-wing leaders whom I dealt with – [the late Prime Minister Menachem] Begin in my previous series, and now Sharon – tried to offer solutions to this question. But there’s a desire to avoid that and say it’s impossible to change these things, and to say the man was being persecuted and wanted to save himself.”

The series only includes a short, truncated reference to the investigations against Sharon and his sons Gilad and Omri. The main interviewee in the film is Gilad, whereas Omri – who served time for corruption related to his father’s 1999 primary campaign – declined to be interviewed.

Zini gets slightly annoyed when asked why the reference to the investigations is so brief. “Because it’s a crazy piece of spin that was designed to divert the discussion from the main thing: So we wouldn’t ask ourselves if we should have been in Gaza, whether we should annex the territories, or to talk about Sharon’s desire to draw the borders of the State of Israel.”

You don’t have to claim that the reason for the disengagement was the investigations, but still – there were investigations. Where are they?

“They’re there, but in all the films made about the disengagement, the discussion gradually moves onto the question as to whether he did it in order to extricate himself from his legal problems. And I want to shout: People, there’s spin here, and we’re talking about a much more important question. The State Prosecutor’s Office decided as it did: [then-State Prosecutor Edna Arbel] wanted to prosecute him; [then-Attorney General] Meni Mazuz decided against.

“There were all kinds of tricks, but they aren’t relevant to the discussion I wanted to have. I wanted to talk about a leader who started to draw the borders of the state, and was suddenly taken from us. He didn’t remain with us, but to me his wishes symbolized a place toward which we have to march. That’s why there’s no discussion of the investigations. The investigations are only foolish background noise.”

Ariel Sharon on a tour of the West Bank with Menachem Begin.Credit: Uzi Keren / Liaison / Getty Ima

A general’s solution

The series features interviews with right-wingers who suggest several other reasons to explain why Sharon suddenly changed course. Former National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam, for instance, talks of an evil spirit that seized Sharon. And former National Union lawmaker Aryeh Eldad explains that what really drove people crazy was the fact that Sharon’s actions tried to prove that the Greater Israel concept was a slogan unrelated to reality, to everyday life.

But Zini says that, in his opinion, they’re missing the fact that this wasn’t an ideological pivot, but instead that the objective situation had changed. “The Oslo Accords created a new reality that had to be dealt with. Sharon had another trait, which was typical of him as a general: If he observed the situation and didn’t like it, he had enough megalomania and enough self-conviction to believe he knew the right solutions. And then, because he was a man of action, he would go for the solution he deemed appropriate. Even if it was necessary to exercise force, even if it was necessary to kill along the way.

“I think Sharon read the situation after the Oslo Accords and decided that his solution was separation, because there was no point in talking to the Arabs and it was impossible to believe them – even if we took steps in order to move aside their leader, as we did in Lebanon.”

In other words, you claim that Sharon was actually very consistent: He was guided by condescension and disgust when it came to the Arabs – he saw them as an enemy about which there was nothing to be done.

“I don’t know if there was condescension and disgust. But Gilad Sharon says clearly that he didn’t believe them. In his opinion, all they ever wanted was to cause harm and destruction, never to build for themselves. I asked him if that’s what he learned at home and he said yes, that was the worldview at home. In effect, Ariel Sharon was a Ben-Gurionist, a pragmatist.”

The show’s interviews were filmed in a studio but then transposed onto a backdrop that simulates the Sharon home at Sycamore Ranch, with a large window overlooking lovely stubble fields. Zini says he drew inspiration from U.S. filmmaker Errol Morris: “He films his interviewees on a set with 10 cameras. I also built a set, but had to make do with three cameras.”

Ariel Sharon pointing at a map of Lebanon at a press conference during the first Lebanon war.Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO

The choice of backdrop relates to a story Sharon once told the late journalist Adam Baruch. In a passage that also appears in the series, he tells about the hard agricultural work in his youth alongside his father, about the heat and fatigue in the field, and about the tiny flies that got into his nose, mouth and eyes. When they took a break, his father used to spread out his hand toward the field and say to him: Look how much we accomplished.

“I wanted to insert the terrible reality of the second intifada in the early 2000s into the agricultural landscape, that marvelous nature, the ‘Look how much we accomplished,’” Zini explains. “From that thought came the idea of the window, which reflects the outside, and also makes it possible to screen on it shots of events that took place. Sharon actually spent most of his term at war, fighting the Palestinian uprising. The contrast between pastoral nature and the reality is what I was looking for.”

Without women

With the exception of Tzipi Livni, who makes a brief appearance, not a single woman is interviewed in the series. Zini claims the reason for this is that during the periods relevant to the discussion of Sharon – the early 2000s and the period around the first Lebanon war – there were no women at the relevant intersections of Israeli politics. His series focuses on the political aspect, in which those playing the main roles are all overly familiar. At the personal level, no key women are discussed except for Sharon’s wife, Lily, who died in 2000. If there were others, the show doesn’t mention them.

“What I’m looking for in these shows is to reflect the decision-making process, based on the biographical background,” Zini says. “Ariel Sharon, during his five years as prime minister, dealt with security and political issues, and in that environment there were no women. He left rescuing the economy to [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who was finance minister, and gave him room to maneuver. His plan was to focus more on domestic issues, after completing the matter of the borders. But he didn’t get to that.”

Zini refuses to accept the theory that Sharon was concerned about how he would go down in history, and that’s why he engineered the disengagement. “I don’t believe that was the spur,” he responds. “I believe he thought that the right way for the Jewish state to remain the Jewish state was by sobering up from the occupation. Incidentally, he was one of the only leaders from the right who said the word ‘occupation.’ He was forced to apologize afterward, because in legal terms it is not occupied territory but invaded territory. Sharon publicly declared his desire for the two-state solution already in September 2001, half a year after he entered the prime minister’s office. It wasn’t sudden.”

So what really was his motivation? What did you understand about him?

“In my opinion, he remained a platoon commander. He arrives at a problematic situation, it has to be solved. He’ll solve it with a unique tactic. If he thinks the situation here isn’t good, he’ll change it. And anything goes.”

Ariel Sharon with wife Lily and their young grandson.Credit: REUTERS

He wasn’t a great democrat.

“He was a man who grew up within the hierarchical world of the army. How could he be a democrat? Where would he get it from? Is it possible to teach old dogs new tricks? I’m not sure. But at the same time, he played the game until the end, by the rules. He also passed the disengagement in the cabinet by a majority, although for that purpose he ousted several ministers along the way. And he passed the law in the Knesset, though there were groups of rebels there. He did everything according to the letter of the law. When that man believed that something was right, he went for it.”

Maybe the shadow of the first Lebanon war was something that made him act? Maybe he said, there’s a chance here that, instead of being remembered as a man who caused lots of deaths, I can be remembered as a man of peace...

“In the end, you make decisions based on your entire biography. When he ran in 2001, there was an argument among his advisers as to how much to mention the Lebanon war. He insisted on talking about it, because in his opinion they did good things there. He was preoccupied for years in an attempt to convince everyone that Lebanon was one of the most justified of Israel’s wars. Instead, Sharon was portrayed as the driving force behind the Lebanon war and as the man who dragged Begin into this war without knowing what he was getting into.

“But that’s not true. The conflict between them began only deep into the war. Begin ran among world leaders in order to make the war possible, and Sharon bombed with horrific and belligerent determination. The clash came only when the idea of consensual expulsion of the terrorists came up, and Sharon was opposed to that. Until then, they marched hand in hand.

“The disengagement was part of a major political plan. He planned to relocate the settlements. Land was prepared in the Negev in order to transfer the settlements. But they were too busy with ‘It won’t happen.’ At the end of the day, they won.”

‘I’m up in the air, quite lost’

The meeting with Zini takes place in the office of his production company in south Tel Aviv. On the wall are paintings by his wife, artist Inbar Horkany, who died of cancer on February 2.

“It started from a small lump in her breast two years ago. At first, it was clear that life would go on after that. But last summer, it emerged that it had metastasized to her bones. She started chemotherapy and the quality of life returned for a while. It was a very creative period for her; she painted all the time. And then the metastasis reached her head, and within two weeks it was over, and she was in agony.”

Inbal Horkany. The artist wife of Levi Zini recently died from cancer at age 48.Credit: Micky Mamon

Horkany, who was 48 when she died, was Zini’s second wife (he was 20 years her senior). They met 24 years ago while she was working in a restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek neighborhood, and they have one daughter, who was recently drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. “Throughout our relationship, there was an argument about who made the first move. I claim she did – and now she can’t contradict that, so I can say it as much as I like.

“She was a people person, and had a lot of friends and people who loved her,” Zini reflects. “She died young and I’m angry at her. It’s not fair, but I’m angry at her. The plan was that I would grow old and she would take care of me. But the opposite happened. I’m very sad, because she was wonderful. I loved her very much.”

An exhibition of Horkany’s final works, mainly ink drawings, just opened at Tel Aviv’s Inga Gallery of Contemporary Art. In order to feel that she’s still here, Zini says he spends a lot of time sorting her work – first for the exhibition, and next for an artist’s book he’ll publish on her behalf.

Did anything change in her work from the moment she fell ill?

“Not really. She worked from the gut, irrationally. From the moment the sickness erupted, she almost stopped painting in oil, only in ink. I assume it was for the sake of convenience. The house was her studio, and oil is more complicated. So recently she mainly investigated ink.”

Was she frustrated at the lack of recognition she received from the art establishment?

“She didn’t pay attention to that. We both wanted people to buy her paintings, because we had to pay for it in some way, but Inbar painted because she couldn’t do otherwise. She had to. It was her raison d’être. She painted in a kind of burst of energy. It was a volcano that erupted on canvas or on paper, was finished, that’s it, we go onto the next page.

“Inbar didn’t hate the establishment. She was embraced by people she loved. And how am I? I don’t know. I still can’t really go back [to normal], that’s why I’m preoccupied with her, with the paintings. I’m up in the air, quite lost.”

Do you find it strange that the world goes on and you’re thrown into it?

“I have a deep hole. Wherever I go, we were in it together, and that can cause me an eruption of emotion and tears. I’m a crybaby, so I cry. My daughter doesn’t; I do. We agreed that I would mourn in my own way and she in hers, and we would respect each other. So I’m the crybaby at home. Ariel Sharon lost his son Gur, in a shooting accident when he was a child. Gilad recounts in the film that his father said the pain always remains, but the space between the stabbings becomes longer. So that’s my sentence at the moment.”

Ariel Sharon in the Knesset.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

As opposed to the series about Begin, which was supported by two film foundations, Zini says he had a really hard time raising money for his series about Sharon, and in the end no foundation agreed to fund it.

“I have no proof, but I’m quite sure it’s because of the subject, because I wanted to deal with Sharon,” he says. “I asked myself while I was working, who’s afraid of Sharon? There were also interviewees who preferred to avoid me.” On the other hand, Zini says Kan was happy to make the series and is proving to be a welcoming place for documentarians.

There’s been a spate of documentary series and films dealing with recent Israeli history. Why now of all times?

“That’s our way of dealing with the situation,” Zini believes. “To tell the truth – it’s hiding to some extent. I burrow into the past in order to say something about the present. It’s more comfortable for me to do that by going back, rather than looking at the present social and political situation, because I don’t have a perspective as yet about what’s happening how.”

As opposed to the flourishing of political issues, there’s far less of a preoccupation with culture.

“Because nobody wants it. I was supposed to do a film about [author] Sami Michael, and I couldn’t raise the money. I recruited a foundation, but not a broadcasting group. There’s a feeling that Israeli culture doesn’t interest anyone. I tried to do a film with [musician-filmmaker] Amit Hai Cohen about Moroccan music, and I haven’t been able to raise money for that either so far.”

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