Surprising Conversations

A few days after the Six-Day War, major general Ariel Sharon asked me to come to his office. Sharon had a highly unusual request of me. 'I would like to ask you not to criticize prime minister Levy Eshkol anymore,' he said.

A few days after the Six-Day War, major general Ariel Sharon asked me to come to his office. Sharon, who had been the commander of a division, was already considered one of the war's heroes. Sharon's appointment to this position had been an emergency one; at the end of the war he returned to his regular job as head of the training division in the General Staff.

Sharon had a highly unusual request of me. "I would like to ask you not to criticize prime minister Levy Eshkol anymore," he said. I expressed amazement on how it was possible that he, of all people, who had levied such harsh criticism on the prime minister during the war, was approaching me with a request like this. "What happened? What's the reason for this change of heart?" I asked.

Sharon replied frankly. "Understand," he said, "at a time like this in particular, after the victory, it's desirable that Israel should have a weak prime minister. This will make it possible to quickly transfer the Israel Defense Forces' training camps and military exercises to the West Bank. That will be my job, and that's what I will have to deal with as head of the training division. A weak prime minister will be wary of interfering in a move of this kind. But he must not be made too weak; otherwise he could be toppled."

Sharon revealed for the first time his point of view on the territories, as well as his modus operandi, which was carried out in a crafty and sophisticated way. About a year before that, Sharon had been promoted by the chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, to the rank of major general. Sharon was concerned about the leadership qualities of the prime minister, Eshkol, and not about the new chief of staff, Moshe Dayan. It is possible he was aware that Dayan would not hold back a plan to transfer the IDF's training bases to the territories.

During his career in the coming years, Sharon was to meet another weak prime minister; Menachem Begin blindly believed in Sharon. When it became apparent that Begin planned to appoint Sharon as defense minister, major general Rafael Vardi approached the prime minister. Vardi wanted to protest against the appointment on the grounds that he was a witness when Sharon called on IDF soldiers to disobey commands to evacuate settlers. Begin turned down Vardi's request and Vardi resigned.

In the final analysis, Begin as prime minister was the one who caused Sharon's dismissal from the post of defense minister at the end of the first Lebanon war, following the Kahan Commission's recommendations on the massacre by Christian Phalangists in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

At around that time, I heard from Sharon about a conversation, or argument, between the IDF's major generals and prime minister Eshkol that had taken place on the eve of the Six-Day War. Eshkol had visited the General Staff with some of his cabinet ministers. Some of the top brass put pressure on him not to delay the decision to go to war; Sharon was one of the more vociferous spokesmen. Eshkol, as we all know, decided to lengthen the time of waiting.

"Can you imagine that there was a possibility of a military revolt against the government?" Sharon said ironically. "We could have requested, for example, that he give us time for consultations. The senior officers would have left the room where the prime minister and some of his ministers remained. We would not have had to do much. We could have locked the ministers in the room and gone off with the key. We would have taken the appropriate decisions and no one would have known that the events taking place were the result of decisions by major generals."

Sharon's remarks were made in a kind of jocular fashion and should not be seen as support for the claim that was made after the war that there had been plans for a military putsch. Another conversation with Sharon from the same period is also worthy of note. After the West Bank was occupied, I arrived at the Jordan River at the site of the Allenby Bridge. The bridge had been destroyed and the iron beams were bent toward the river. People who had escaped from their towns and villages were climbing on the beams to try to reach the Jordanian side.

On the banks of the river, I noticed a young woman with two small children. The three of them were crying. The woman said she had come from one of the villages in Samaria and was fleeing from her home. She wanted to cross the Jordan River and reach her husband who had remained in Jordan, but she was unable to do so because she was afraid the children would fall into the water and drown. I pleaded with her to remain. I told her that in Jordan she would become a refugee and that she would never be able to return. It was reasonable to expect that her husband would find a way to return home, I told her.

The woman refused and continued to cry. I convinced two Palestinian men about to climb onto the iron beams that each of them should take one of the small children with him. Part of the story was reported in Haaretz. Sharon complained about this. "It's wrong to arouse pity for them," he said. "It's their own fault."