The Apprentice Who Became a Sorcerer

Ariel Sharon’s coma was of a piece with the jagged ups and downs that made his life look like an out-of-whack polygraph.

The Knesset cafeteria was almost deserted that winter evening in December 2000. At one of the tables sat two people whom Ariel Sharon used to classify as his rivals: former Defense Minister Moshe Arens and a reporter. Arens had built his reputation on the ruins of Sharon after the Kahan Commission report on the Sabra and Chatila massacre of 1982, and the reporter had been writing about Sharon for three decades and won compliments from him such as “dog” and “mental case.”

They were more or less two of the last people Sharon would normally want to see, but that evening he seemed lonely, conciliatory and accepting of the fact that, at the age of 72, his days in politics were numbered. Ehud Barak had recently been elected prime minister and Sharon, more than 50 years after being seriously wounded at Latrun, had agreed to demonstrate weakness and apply for benefits as a disabled Israel Defense Forces veteran. That is not the behavior of someone who is making an effort to maintain an image of power and fortitude.

This, after all, was the man who asked television correspondents not to use phrases about Sharon like “at his age.” Rather, he would suggest, they should say “in his situation.”

Sharon was the chairman of Likud at the time, having beat out Ehud Olmert and Meir Sheetrit in an intrigue-shrouded race after Benjamin Netanyahu lost the premiership to Barak and resigned as party chief. The leadership of Likud was not considered an especially worthwhile appointment for someone who was pressed for time; when Sharon descended from the Temple Mount at the start of the second intifada in September 2000, he tried to join Barak’s government and was turned away (Barak wanted him, but was afraid of the reaction of the left wing of the Labor Party). When the election for prime minister was moved up, Sharon became a candidate. But the buzz was that Netanyahu was about to announce his return to politics, which was understood to mean Sharon would lose.

Nobody in the Knesset cafeteria looked in Ariel Sharon’s direction. Politically he was a dead horse, or at least a dying one. He walked back and forth among the empty tables, stopped next to Arens and cleared his throat. “Eh, shalom, how are you?” he asked.

“Thanks, we were just talking about you,” replied the reporter.

“Really?” snickered Sharon, ready to believe the worst. “What did you say?”

The topic under discussion had been the wonders of gematria, the Jewish system of numerology that assigns numerical value to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “How is it that Hilary equals Rodham, her last name, as well as Clinton? Roosevelt equals Hitler, and Arik equals Arens.”

“Good, interesting, excuse me, I didn’t want to bother you,” he said, continuing on his short journey to a table where he sat alone. Leaving the cafeteria required walking past him, and when the reporter went past, Sharon smiled again, as though at an old acquaintance. “I know that I’m supposed to be angry at you, but I don’t remember about what,” he said. “Call, come, we’ll meet.”

Time passed and Sharon became the Likud candidate for prime minister, because Netanyahu unexpectedly declined. Within less than two months, Sharon was prime minister. At the end of the previous year he was still pleading with Ehud Barak to give him the Finance Ministry. Now he had overtaken Barak and was offering him the Defense Ministry.

And that meeting Sharon had suggested in the Knesset cafeteria was shelved; there was no longer any need for it. Apparently Sharon had finally remembered why he was angry. When Sharon’s son Omri gave the reporter some background information, he said: “Just make sure dad doesn’t find out.”

Arik rose and fell time after time. Nobody was his equal, whether he was in the greatest heights or the lowest depths. The past eight years he has spent in a coma, almost a tenth of his life, were not atypical in that sense. It’s all part of his frenetic up-and-down career. Soaring and braking, crashing and taking off. Others climbed gradually until they reached a peak of some sort and descended from it slowly. In his case there was no ordinary graph of ascent and descent, but sharp lines, up-down-up-down, like an out-of-whack polygraph.

The name “Arik Sharon” meant different things to different people at different times. He had the sense, 60 years ago, to be the barrel of David Ben-Gurion’s gun. The gun itself was Moshe Dayan, and the bullets were Sharon’s subordinates, among them many who were killed during the reprisal raids against Palestinian fedayeen. Sharon, who was a fighter in 1948, the commander of the Golani elite commando unit and a staff intelligence officer, presented himself just in time to lead the special operations force Unit 101 in 1953. Within four months he had carried out a hostile takeover of paratrooper Battalion 890 and launched a new period in Israel Defense Forces history: the peak of the prestige of cross-border operations, the paratroopers’ red beret and wings.

As the apprentice of Ben-Gurion and Dayan, two sorcerers who regularly brewed concoctions of politics, policy and security, Sharon knew how to connect with those in power. It’s hard to believe that he would one day say restraint is power. During those bloody years, he behaved as though brute force was the only kind of power, and restraint was foreign to him. When other officers memorized the mantra that every plan is a foundation for change, he saw every order as a foundation for expansion.

With his great greed and pride, Sharon paid a twofold price for the combat achievements of his units. Above all, he paid with the lives of his soldiers, who were sacrificed on the altar of saber-rattling and warmongering, in unnecessary operations or attempts to expand existing operations; 18 died in Qalqilyah and twice as many at the Mitla Pass. He also paid a price on the personal level, by turning himself into an object of hatred for subordinates, colleagues and commanders. That is how he became controversial, alternately arousing admiration and reservations, fear and scorn.

As a field officer, he was a first-class military mind, as contemporaries like Gen. Israel Tal and Gen. Avraham Tamir agreed. But not when it came to policy.

Sharon excelled as a doer, not as a planner. In his political roles - as minister of agriculture (and settlements), as defense minister, as prime minister - he left no positive imprint.

His greatest dream, to be appointed chief of staff, did not come true. His big mistake was his assessment in 1973 that there would be no war and that he would be better off resigning from the army and switching over to politics. Had he remained head of Southern Command, we can assume that he would have done a good job commanding the Sinai front on Yom Kippur and succeeded in skipping from there to chief of staff - as happened to Rafael Eitan, like him an officer spurned by the authorities, who was also on the verge of forced retirement. Resigning from the Knesset to command a division, and being appointed as adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of his patrons in the army, did not open a back channel for him to be appointed chief of staff. That was the disappointment of his life.

The defense portfolio was not sufficient compensation. Sharon tried to run the war in Lebanon as a mega-chief of staff and failed at both the idea and its implementation. As prime minister, although he was twice involved in the appointment of a chief of staff (Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Halutz), and appointed a quasi-professional defense minister (Shaul Mofaz), he was already powerless, under the command of the White House.

Forty years ago, in December 1973, Ben-Gurion died of a stroke at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, at the age of 87. The circumstances of death are similar, but the apprentice who himself became a sorcerer never reached Ben-Gurion’s level. Ben-Gurion did promote Sharon and feel affectionate toward him; he protected him in the years when he was reviled. At most Sharon was a faded, diluted copy of Dayan, his partner in a love-hate relationship. If Ben-Gurion was the father, Dayan was the son and Sharon was the grandson, there is also a great-grandson: Barak, whom Sharon promoted to major general.

Despite the fact that Sharon wielded a certain influence on the events of his time - a period that lengthened into a 50-year military and political career - Sharon is of minimal historical importance. He is a person who experienced pleasure and pain, who lost a son and was widowed twice, who used people and organizations (the IDF, Likud, the Shlomtzion and Kadima parties, the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza) as a private launching pad for himself; who achieved maximum power but wasted it on petty matters.

Sharon was spared the knowledge that in his fall he gave the premiership to two of his favorites, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, but at the end of his career, amid public anger at an expensive and unnecessary hospital stay of eight years, what will be remembered is his constant ambition to maneuver himself upward, to authority, in the service of one great idea: himself.

Asher Levy, who eventually became a brigadier general, was the commander of Sgt. Arik Scheinermann’s company in 1948, in the Alexandroni Brigade. Although Levy likes to kill the story, or at least to seriously wound it, in his distilled version it’s a story about Sgt. Arik urging Levy to oust the weak platoon commander. Levy admitted doing so was justified, but said he did not have an available candidate for platoon commander to serve in his stead. “Me,” suggested Arik. That’s the right solution, thought Levy during the first second. Within a minute he was picturing Sharon as platoon commander, suggesting to the brigade commander that Levy be ousted; and if by chance there was no company commander to serve in his stead, well then, Arik would surely have a candidate to recommend.