David Landau: Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 631 pp.
Did Ariel Sharon have a clear-cut ideology? How can all the inconsistencies in his political outlook be reconciled? It can be argued that Sharon belonged to the flexible Ben-Gurion school of perception of current reality. In addition, Sharon was noted for his enthusiasm for being economical with factual truth. The combination of these two central factors define Sharon’s political odyssey.
WHO WAS ARIEL SHARON?
To write a popular biography of Ariel Sharon is a daunting task. Unlike other Israeli leaders, there is no thread of political behavior that truly defines him ideologically. Unlike Menahem Begin or Yitzhak Tabenkin or Zvi Yehuda Kook, there is no framework that characterizes—even in a general sense— the direction of Arik Sharon’s political activity. This “ inconsistency,” as Landau labels it, is overlaid by an obscuring image of courage and bravado in times of war. There was also Sharon’s reputation for insubordination, recklessness, manipulation, deviousness, and disobedience stretching over decades. For example, Sharon, in later years, invoked “the saison”1 as a means of berating those within the Likud, including Menahem Begin (the former head of the Irgun) whom he accused of betraying him. Yet those who were there at the time in the 1940s suggest that Sharon actually participated in it—and had no qualms about roughing up members of the Irgun (pp. 8–9). As Sharon became involved in Haganah intelligence, he seems to have been very much at home in persecuting the adherents of the Irgun at the behest of the leader of the Yishuv, David Ben-Gurion.
Sharon’s expertise at being economical with the truth placed him in “elegant exile” at the Royal Military Academy at Camberley in the United Kingdom for a year. When Yitzhak Rabin took over as the head of the Israel Defense Forces (idf) at the beginning of 1964, he brought his talented colleague in from the cold, Arik Sharon—and bluntly told him: Your trouble is, though, that people tend to believe you’re not a decent human being. I don’t know you well enough to say, I want to promote you, but I’ve got to be sure that your accusers aren’t right. (p. 53) While a fraught yet mutually respectful relationship between the two men lasted throughout their lives, Sharon was a devout believer that all was fair in politics and war. On October 5, 1995, Sharon participated in the demonstration when Rabin had been depicted as a Nazi SS officer. Introducing the term “collaborators” into the charged political lexicon of the Oslo debate—Sharon compared Rabin to Marshal Petain, the leader of Vichy France.2
Moreover, at that time, he regarded any potential threats to assassinate Rabin as “deliberate provocations” to intimidate the Prime Minister’s opponents—similar, he pointed out, to those fabrications that Stalin conjured up in order to crush his enemies. David Landau underlines these flaws as conducive for political success. He describes the Sharon of the late 1970s in Begin’s first government. Happily for Sharon (and for the settlers) inconsistency and disingenuousness were the very attributes with which Sharon’s personality was bountifully endowed. This fortunate confluence enabled Sharon to achieve an ever-higher profile within the government. (p. 155) Yet when Sharon died in January 2014, he was revered as almost a founding father of the state and the Lord Protector by the nation. So who was Ariel Sharon? Was he a conniving backstabber roaming the political bear pit or the courageous soldier who time and again saved his people from destruction? Or were both true?
Did Sharon undergo a miraculous transformation as prime minister and become a truth-telling soothsayer? Or was this merely a front designed to appeal to the gullibility of the electorate? As Amram Mitzna, his Labor opponent in the 2003 election commented: It’s the same Sharon, the Sharon who misled the government and the nation in the Lebanon war. He hasn’t changed, even if he looks like a dear old granddad. (p. 424) These are some of the questions that David Landau raises in an attempt to unravel the enigma that was Ariel Sharon.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Sharon’s grandfather, Mordechai Scheinerman, left Brest-Litovsk and settled in Rehovot in 1910. Two years later he returned, but fled to Tbilisi in Georgia when World War I broke out. When Trotsky’s Red Army invaded in March 1921 and overthrew the Menshevik government, Scheinerman fled with his family once more to Palestine. They arrived in February 1922 and lived in a tent in Kfar Malal. His parents were ostensibly members of the labor movement, but they were also rigid individualists who made their own decisions. This did not go down well with those who espoused the collective mindset of the Zionist experiment. This led to a reputation that painted them as argumentative, stubborn, and disputatious. Yet they were far from being self-indulgent boors. Sharon’s home was a stereotypical, cultured, Russian home. His parents and grandparents taught him Russian literature. He was brought up to be a ben tarbut (a man of culture) as well as a ben kfar (a man of the soil). This stood him in good stead when he negotiated with Putin’s Russia over sixty years later. In 1948, Sharon was a member of the Alexandroni Brigade and was wounded at Latrun. He was also present at Ramle and Lydda. There he discovered the mutilated bodies of Israeli soldiers—ears, noses, genitals cut off. This experience may have encouraged his belief in a harsh military response and a likely lifelong scepticism about the possibilities of peace with the Palestinians.
Sharon ascended the military’s ladder of promotion swiftly. He was appointed commander of the reconnaissance company of the Golani Brigade and then placed by Yitzhak Rabin in a battalion commander’s course. He first encountered Moshe Dayan when he was appointed intelligence officer of Central Command. He remained on good terms with both Dayan and Rabin throughout his life even though their political paths diverged considerably. Sharon’s enthusiasm for the “shoot to kill” approach toward infiltrators in the early 1950s led the head of the idf, Mordecai Makleff, to create a special reprisal force, Unit 101, at the urging of Ben-Gurion. Yet Sharon was no poster boy for the idf’s image of gracious nobility in a time of war. The idea of “a purity of arms” was not taken seriously. Sharon’s men chased the Bedouin Azazme tribe across the border into Sinai. Sharon instigated an attack on the al-Burej camp in Gaza in which fifteen civilians were killed. When Makleff demanded an explanation, Sharon said that the women killed were “ prostitutes serving the armed infiltrators who kill our innocent civilians” (p. 24). Twenty-five members of Unit 101 and 100 paratroopers led the well-known attack on Qibya. Sharon reported that twelve Jordanian national guardsmen and two legionnaires had been killed. He said that he did not realize that civilians were still inside the houses—sixty-nine were killed. This was the first time that Israel was condemned by Diaspora leaders amidst an international furor. Landau dwells on the Qibya incident for a few short paragraphs, relying on a couple of references from Benny Morris’s research.3
Yet Morris’s extensive research has uncovered a much darker side of Sharon’s character. Following the raid, an aghast Moshe Sharett extracted a copy of the operational order from the then acting Minister of Defense, Pinhas Lavon. Sharett was given a version from which a sentence had been deleted. Upon discovering this, Sharett committed to the intimacy of his diary the following words: “the forgery of the Qibya order: To kill and destroy—all know that he deceives the prime minister.” Morris surmises that Sharon had been instructed to kill as many Arabs as possible.4 The raid took place on the night of October 14–15, 1953. The initial Arab Legion report on October 16 stated that forty-two bodies had been recovered of whom thirty-eight were women and children. Nearly all had gunshot or grenade wounds. Morris argues that this would have been standard operating procedure for “combat in a built-up area.” According to Morris, this called for “throwing grenades through the windows, knocking down the front door, and indiscriminately spraying each room with lightweapons fire.”5
Sharett noted in his diary that he “walked back and forth in my room perplexed and completely depressed, feeling helpless.”6 Israeli diplomats abroad faced the full fury of hitherto friendly nations. It was one thing for the undisciplined, dissident Irgun to carry out the killings at Dir Yassin, but something else for a sovereign state to be implicated in this kind of behavior. Yet Ben-Gurion had always argued that reprisal raids were imperative. Ben-Gurion propagated a cover-up in a radio broadcast, suggesting that it was Jewish refugees from Arab countries and survivors of Nazi concentration camps who had decided to take matters in their hands. As he put it: “we have carried out a searching investigation and it is clear beyond doubt that not a single army unit was absent from its base on the night of the attack on Qibya.”7
Suspecting that the soldiers of Unit 101 were former Irgun members who were prone to such actions, Sharon was invited to meet Ben-Gurion. According to Sharon’s autobiography, Ben-Gurion told him: It doesn’t make any real difference what will be said about Qibya around the world. The important thing is how it will be looked at here in this region. This is going to give us the possibility of living here.8 Landau telescopes the Qibya incident. Yet in one sense this episode says a lot about the evolution of the ambivalence toward Sharon. The Israeli public, tired of murders of civilians by Arab infiltrators and resentful of the wave of international condemnation, closed ranks and buried the issue.
THE DRIFT TO THE RIGHT
Yet Ben-Gurion, like Begin later on, demonstrated a special affection for Sharon—the sparkling antithesis of the Diaspora Jew. Even so, on his return from Camberley, Ben-Gurion—with a characteristic lack of diplomatic finesse—asked him in November 1958: “Have you weaned yourself of [sic] your off-putting proclivities for not telling the truth.” A sheepish Sharon assured Ben-Gurion that he had been cured of his addiction.
Sharon also had a good relationship with Moshe Dayan, who similarly admired his courage and assertiveness. Yet even he was tested, and accused Sharon of carrying out “unapproved operations.” One episode in the campaign against infiltrators led to the deaths of Egyptian soldiers—but this happened during the middle of the clandestine negotiations at Sèvres with Britain and France—and Dayan was furious.
Sharon also found himself at odds with his military colleagues because he found it so difficult to follow orders about which he had reservations. Motta Gur became a lifelong enemy on both political and personal levels. He accused Sharon of cowardice in not leading his men into the Mitle Pass during the Suez Campaign—he said that Sharon believed that he was “too important” to lead. Gur also accused him of being an “inveterate liar.”
Sharon found himself in the cold and increasingly isolated within the military until Rabin’s attempt at rehabilitation in 1964. Yet he was never one to take accusations and insults lying down. He had a supreme belief in his abilities and an infinite resilience to counter criticism from any quarter. This ability to never allow himself to be diverted from a goal propelled him into the orbit of Menahem Begin. Landau’s account of Sharon’s 1969 meeting with Herut’s Menahem Begin and the Liberals’ Yosef Sapir—both ministers without portfolio in Levi Eshkol’s coalition government—poses the question: was this a maneuver against those in the Labor party so that he could remain in the army? Or was it the first tentative dipping of his toe into the political waters? Landau doesn’t choose one explanation over the other.
In an interview some years later, Sharon attempted to separate his attempt to enter the political arena from Haim Bar-Lev’s refusal to renew his contract. Sharon cast his effective dismissal from the idf within the framework of his opposition to the Bar-Lev line—as “a static defence system.” In 1969, the press immediately reported that Sharon had been offered a prime position on the Gahal electoral list. Yet he had already had second thoughts about it. Landau relates that Labor’s Pinhas Sapir was very wary about Sharon’s defection to the Gahal. Strings were presumably pulled and Sharon remained in the army for a few more years. This important episode in Sharon’s life, however, demonstrates Sharon’s ideological drift away from the Labor movement. His idols in the 1950s were David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan—both of whom left Mapai in 1965 to establish Rafi, the party of the political princes, due to the Lavon affair. When Dayan, Herzog, Kollek, Peres, and the others realized that the prospect for their collective political futures had been severely stunted by Rafi’s failure in the 1965 election, they joined the newly established Labor party in 1968 along with 60 percent of the Rafi membership. “The old man,” Ben-Gurion, stayed out and instead formed the State List that won only four seats in the 1969 election. Ben-Gurion dropped out of politics in 1970, but his State List went on to become one of the founding components of the Likud in 1973. Sharon’s political odyssey should therefore be understood in this context— as part of those in the Labor party who gradually drifted to the Right, led by Ben-Gurion in his dotage. Unfortunately, Landau does not present this possibility. Jabotinsky’s romanticism and Begin’s fatalism were not the inspirations for Sharon’s actions in the political arena. Instead, it was Ben-Gurion’s flexibility and perception of political and military reality that were his guidelines. Indeed, Ben-Gurion’s example would certainly help explain Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in the summer of 2005—and in part his “inconsistency.”
While Sharon was feared and often despised in the upper echelons of both the political and the military elite, his courage on the battlefield and his innovative strategies won him admirers. When Dayan wanted to abandon the Suez Canal in 1973, Sharon crossed it and came within striking distance of Cairo. Colonel Amnon Reshef, whose fourteenth armored division bore the brunt of the Egyptian assault on Sinai, commented: Sharon radiated presence, charisma, leadership. Men followed him willingly. They heard his voice on the radio, his assurance, his encouragement, his motivation. They saw him, he was with us. He was always there. (p. 96) Reshef significantly resigned from the army and refused to participate in the Lebanon war in 1982. He opposed Sharon politically, but the battlefield was a different matter.
The bandaged hero of the Yom Kippur War made Sharon an iconic figure— the savior who had plucked Israel from the jaws of destruction. Yet the fiercely independent Sharon later told Ma’ariv that he very much regretted obeying the High Command’s orders during an episode in the Yom Kippur War. He was publicly criticized for this admission. In his testimony to the Agranat Commission in 1974, he told the judges that he hitherto believed that a great number of deaths would be caused if he obeyed the order, but he also had no one with whom to discuss it. He carried out the order—with negative results. This section of the Agranat Commission was kept secret until 2008 (p. 144).
“The war of the generals” became public knowledge in an article in the New York Times when Sharon criticized the slowness and indolence of his military colleagues during the Yom Kippur War and seemingly claimed credit for the idf’s advance into Egypt proper. The Chief of Staff of the idf, David Elazar, was not amused. He bitterly complained about “biased and one-sided descriptions.” Bar-Lev pointed out that the plan to cross over the Suez Canal “did not belong to any one individual.” All this came to the fore in the run-up to the postponed election of 1973. Sharon had created the Likud earlier in the year from Herut, the Liberals, the State List, the Free Center and assorted Labor defectors. While Gahal attained twenty-six seats in 1969, the new Likud with Begin at its core achieved thirty-nine mandates in 1973. An earlier prediction before the onset of the war had indicated that the Likud would do no better than its component parts. The war had moved the political fulcrum toward the Right. The religious, the Mizrahim, and the alienated underclass all switched their allegiance to Menahem Begin, who had enlisted the support of hallowed military figures such as Ezer Weizmann—and now Ariel Sharon. While the Left disintegrated, the Right coalesced. Even so, Labor still maintained a sweeping lead in the election despite the debacle of the Yom Kippur War. The writing, however, was on the wall. The old Mapai leadership, led by Golda Meir, soon stepped down and was replaced by the next generation—not from Mapai, but from their rivals within the Labor party in Ahdut Ha’avodah and Rafi. Elected as a Likud MK, Sharon embraced the cause of the West Bank settlers and made his first foray into Samaria, in 1974, in the company of Gush Emunim’s mentor, Zvi Yehuda Kook.
Begin had transformed the Irgun into Herut, then into Gahal, and finally into the Likud—and now he was on the cusp of attaining power. Landau, however, does not delve too deeply into Begin’s ideology. Begin was always willing to give up Sinai since he regarded it as not being part of the Land of Israel. This was matched by his determination to hold on to the West Bank, which for Begin, as Judea and Samaria, was indeed part and parcel of Eretz Israel. This differentiation allowed him to suggest flexibility in making territorial concessions in Sinai and at the same time create the illusion that he would be willing to give up the West Bank as well at some point in the future. It was perceived by the far Right, and by his long-time colleagues within Herut, that their revered leader, now that he was in power, would actually compromise core beliefs—and led to the incorrect perception that this meant returning the West Bank to Arab rule.
With Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, and the subsequent Camp David agreement, the far Right began to move out of the shelter of Begin’s umbrella that covered the broad Right. Any territorial concessions were seen as diluting fundamental ideological principles—and this included abandoning the Sinai settlement of Yamit. In Begin’s first government, Sharon was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Chairman of the ministerial settlement committee. He was in charge of Begin’s settlement drive in areas of the West Bank that were populated by Palestinians. Sharon started the “We’re on the Map” program to demonstrate to Israelis what was happening on the West Bank. These were free trips, wholesome days out for the whole family—and funded by donors abroad (p. 162).9 According to Sharon, twenty-two kibbutzim and moshavim and thirty-four hilltop villages were founded between 1977 and 1981, during Begin’s first government.
Sharon essentially believed that the civil war of 1948 between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs had in fact never ended—and there could only be one victor. This informed his attempt to colonize the West Bank. He wanted to prevent the establishment of a state of Palestine, side by side with Israel, and to break up a territorial contiguity on the West Bank through the development of roads from Israel to the settlements. It also informed his push for a Greater Jerusalem by encircling Arab areas with new Jewish neighborhoods. He also wanted to settle on the Samarian hills to protect the populated coastal plain and to prevent any attacks on Ben-Gurion airport. Yet Begin found an easy ally in Sharon in confronting his old comrades on the Right. Sharon’s willingness to change his views in accordance with his perception of the reality, his overt opportunism, and his lack of an ideological rigidity rooted in the Irgun allowed him to advise Begin to give up the Sinai settlements. Yet once Begin was safely interred in his grave, and when Sharon was cultivating the Right during the 1990s in order to oppose Netanyahu, he publicly regretted evacuating the Sinai settlements.10 Moreover Begin’s idea of autonomy for the Palestinians, he argued, was no more than a subterfuge in order to sign the peace treaty with Egypt (p. 280). Rabin’s concept of autonomy was not the same as that of Begin. To stop a Palestinian state, he remarked, Palestinian autonomy had to be reduced to enclaves, encompassing some 30 percent of the West Bank (p. 281).
Passed over as idf Chief of Staff, he wished to become Defense Minister. When Weizmann resigned as a result of Begin’s refusal to budge from any compromise over the West Bank, both Shamir and Arens refused to replace him because they did not want the ideological burden of supervising the evacuation of the settlements. Even so, despite Sharon’s eager anticipation, Begin kept Sharon waiting and took over the Defense Ministry himself. Sharon considered this an insult and there was a fierce argument between them (p. 165).12 Sharon’s road to the Defense Ministry began with his support for Begin’s proposal to bomb Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. The plan was opposed by Weizmann, Yadin, the Mossad, and Military Intelligence. Iraq would not have a bomb for many years. Moreover, work had been suspended because of the war between Iraq and Iran. It was conversely argued that at such a time there would therefore be no radioactive fallout if the reactor was bombed.
The 1981 election that followed a few days later produced another victory for a re-energized Begin. The “earthquake” of 1977 was therefore no flash in the pan. Despite all warnings to the contrary, including from Dayan, Begin appointed Sharon as Defense Minister. Landau argues that Begin feared that blood would be shed in evacuating the Sinai settlements and that he could only depend on Sharon to prevent it. Yamit was indeed evacuated without bloodshed—in part due to Sharon. However, it opened the way for Sharon to plan, implement, and execute Operation Peace for Galilee—the Lebanon war of 1982. As Ehud Ya’ari and Ze’ev Schiff’s powerful 1984 book on the war detailed, Sharon emerged from the episode with an enhanced reputation for duplicity and insubordination. Landau records this sorry story in two chapters, aptly titled “His Will be Done” and “Through the Mire.” Sharon was represented during the Kahan Commission hearings by his lawyer, Dov Weisglass. Sharon was informed by the Commission that he bore “personal responsibility” for the killings in the Sabra and Shatila camps and by extension the invasion itself. It also added: In our opinion, it is fitting that the Defense Minister draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office.13
It effectively advised Begin to dismiss him. Begin resisted all such calls and allowed Sharon to stay on as a minister without portfolio. An unbowed Sharon disputed the cabinet’s decision to accept the findings of the Kahan Commission Report. Sharon accused Begin of “handing him over,” recalling the saison, when the Haganah had handed over members of the Irgun to the British (p. 218). According to Sharon himself, this sharp retort was a factor in Begin’s disappearance from public life, and his depression and isolation after 1983.
THE TWILIGHT YEARS
Sharon was down but he was not out. He never uttered the slightest scintilla of an apology, following the findings of the Kahan Commission. An unrepentant Sharon characterized the Lebanon war as one of a clear choice like those of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973—the only war of no choice, he suggested, was that of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (pp. 232–33). He now wanted to become chairman of the Jewish Agency—a prospect that horrified Diaspora philanthropists—and in a secret vote he was defeated. This post was regarded as a Herut fiefdom and Sharon would also have become a minister once more (p. 219). Even though Sharon, during the post-Begin era, was characterized in Israel as “an obtuse and foul-mouthed extremist,” Landau suggests that such an image also reinforced his position within the Likud (p. 228). He put extraordinary energy into cultivating ordinary Likud members by speaking at an inordinate number of branch meetings. Indeed, if Sharon had gained another fifty-four votes, he would have become the Likud candidate during the 1984 election instead of Yitzhak Shamir.
During the mid-1980s, the journalist Uzi Benziman published a biography of Sharon, whose translated Hebrew title was He Does Not Stop at Red Lights. As Landau illustrates, Sharon privately reflected on his tarnished public image—and he believed that he had been treated unfairly. His goal was a vindication of his conduct in 1982, followed by a subsequent political rehabilitation. Sharon therefore resented the fact that Yitzhak Rabin had been appointed Defense Minister in his stead after Likud’s slim victory in the 1988 election. Landau records a remarkable exchange between Sharon and his long-time colleague and opponent, Yitzhak Rabin, during the first Intifada:
Sharon: You are not fit to serve as Defence Minister because of your failure in handling the terror in the territories and your failure to defend Jewish lives.
Rabin: You had better be careful with what you say. To date, only one Defense Minister has ever been removed from office by a commission of inquiry. The Lebanon war and its failure strongly point to your need to be careful about what you say.
Sharon: I don’t want to relate to the style of Rabin’s remarks. This happens to him sometimes. Mainly when he’s not sober enough. When he loses control of himself.
Rabin: Your words barely reach the tip of my ankle. (pp. 242–43)
Sharon could certainly intimidate if he did not get his own way. This characterized the public and international perception of him until 1998, when he became Foreign Minister in Netanyahu’s government. By the 1990s, Sharon was regarded as the standard bearer of the Right— someone who would never compromise. Any hint of change even by the tight-lipped Shamir, a stonewaller par excellence, was attacked by Sharon. The first Intifada, however, was taking its toll. An increasing number of Israelis viewed the Palestinians as fighting for their cause by nonlethal methods—and that the idf’s heavy-handed methods were no substitute for political dialogue and eventual negotiations. Groups such as Yesh Gvul assisted those Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank. Some were quietly transferred by sympathetic officers to other duties; others were sentenced to periods of imprisonment.
Sharon’s loyalties lay with those Israeli soldiers who had been unable to cope with the Palestinian uprising. Landau records that by early 1991, 154 officers and men had been court-martialed and hundreds more faced disciplinary action (p. 246). Sharon was among the fifty MKs (Members of Knesset) who promoted a private members’ bill to provide pardons to all idf soldiers—but not to officers—who carried out illegal actions during the first three months of the first Intifada. Sharon spent a considerable amount of time galvanizing the Likud central committee behind his stand. He consequently chose a meeting of the Likud central committee to publicly resign from the government over the looming question of a Palestinian state in February 1990. Such theater was designed to publicly humiliate the taciturn Shamir in the bosom of his party. It subsequently became known as “the night of the microphones.”
The National Unity government of the Likud and Labor parties collapsed and its replacement by a Peres-led government seemed a foregone conclusion. Inter-Haredi rivalry and a volte-face by the members of the Shas party stopped Peres’s plans in its tracks. Instructed by the mitnaged Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Schach of Degel Ha-Torah to reverse their decision, Peres’s projected majority all but disappeared. However, Landau does not mention that it was on the instructions of the Hasidic Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson in Brooklyn that members of Agudat Yisrael absented themselves from the Knesset vote. Landau points out that Sharon provided bodyguards for one of these MKs.
Unexpectedly back in power, Sharon was appointed Housing Minister and proceeded to invigorate the settlement drive in the West Bank. With the outbreak of the US-led Operation Desert Storm, Sharon strongly opposed Shamir’s policy of self-restraint against Saddam Hussein. The Americans had worked long and hard to create a coalition of Western and Arab armies—even the Syrians participated. Saddam Hussein wanted an Israeli intervention in order to wreck this coalition and secure the defection of the Arab states. He was prepared to provoke the Israelis by firing missiles at them. Some thirtynine scud missiles therefore hit Tel Aviv, Haifa, and other cities during the brief 1990–1991 Gulf War. Sharon wanted the idf to land commandos in western Iraq to seek and destroy the scud launchers. Sharon advocated just simply informing the Americans of Israeli decisions—without asking their consent (p. 263).
Sharon’s standing in the United States had reached a new low. The US Secretary of State, James Baker, categorically refused to meet Sharon in Washington (p. 265). He resented Sharon’s disregard for US policy, and in particular, the establishment of new settlements each time Baker visited Jerusalem. Instead, meetings with other White House officials were held at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. The Americans perceived Sharon in the context of the Lebanon war and his unruly behavior generally within the Israeli political arena. Even the Jonathan Pollard affair was placed at Sharon’s feet, because Pollard’s handler, Rafi Eitan, was an old friend of Sharon. The arrival of huge numbers of Soviet Jews in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR brought out Sharon “the Bulldozer”—as he circumvented rules and regulations and ran roughshod over budgetary requirements. This brought him into continuous conflict with the State Comptroller, Miriam Ben-Porat, whose annual reports illustrated cronyism and preferential treatment. The Comptroller’s 1992 report stated that Sharon’s ministry had awarded construction contracts to some companies with negligible paid-up capital and others who were simply unable to honor such contracts from the outset. The inference was that Sharon had farmed out contacts to political allies. In addition, as Landau remarks, his stewardship of the Housing
Ministry has been “a woeful mess.” Sharon’s response was that everything he had done was in the public interest and that he was the victim of petty regulations, administered by small-minded bureaucrats.
FROM MR HYDE TO DR JEKYLL
The election of Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accord were a fundamental challenge to Sharon’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He regarded Oslo as a historic mistake and continued to believe that Arafat was “a base murderer, an unreformed terrorist, an inveterate liar, implacably committed to Israel’s destruction.” In 1994, following the killing of Palestinian worshippers by Baruch Goldstein, Sharon opposed the mooted evacuation of settlers from Hebron by Rabin’s government. He called for passive resistance with himself at the head.14 He also stood by the settlers, urging them to seize the hilltops to create contiguity between the settlements.
By 1995, Sharon was knee-deep in the protests of the far Right against Rabin’s policies. The government, he argued in an article in June 1995, was being transformed into a mosser—an informer, a chilling term that resonated historically with many religious Jews. Indeed, there were discussions and deliberations by West Bank rabbis at the time as to whether Rabin deserved this appellation. Sharon had always kept a private channel open to Rabin and the two men continued to constructively discuss the political situation despite the public megaphone war.
Despite his involvement in the far Right’s incitement against Rabin, he was clearly shocked at the assassination of the Prime Minister. Landau reveals that Sharon later told Rabin’s daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, privately that “there were things said that shouldn’t have been said” (p. 291).
Following the Islamist bus bombings in 1996, the Israeli electorate shifted dramatically to the Right. Sharon entertained the possibility that he would once more become Defense Minister, a post, according to a senior figure in the Likud, that Netanyahu had promised to him. Sharon had campaigned strongly, particularly amongst the Haredim, to ensure the election of Netanyahu. Yet Netanyahu desperately wanted to keep Sharon out of government (p. 296), given the experience of both Begin and Shamir. Moreover, in the past, Sharon had ridiculed Netanyahu. Referring to Netanyahu’s public explanation of his extra-marital affairs, Sharon offered his advice that “there are leaders who solve problems and others who get caught with their pants down.”15 Netanyahu, in frustration, spoke of Sharon’s incessant and tireless subversion. With support from both David Levy and the Haredi parties, Sharon battered on Netanyahu’s door. When the pressure proved too great, Netanyahu solved the problem by expanding the cabinet to create the Ministry of National Infrastructure for Sharon.
While continuing to refer to Netanyahu as “the male model,” Sharon seemed to be strangely oozing an uncharacteristic quality—a loyalty to his leader. It was as if he had turned over a new political leaf at a time when he was approaching the age of seventy. In hindsight, it was the beginning of the road to the role of a twenty-first-century elder statesman. Why did this take place? Why did he change from duplicitous bastard to cuddly grandfather of the nation, in the minds of Israelis? Landau devotes little space to this volte-face—and to be fair, it is still difficult even now to fathom why Sharon should change the habits of a lifetime. Perhaps as Landau implies, it was Father Time whispering in his ear that the grim reaper was growing enthusiastic to pay a visit. Moreover, the unsure and indecisive Netanyahu was making mistakes, and might not last, even though he was several decades younger.
Both Netanyahu and Sharon now began to distance themselves from the ideological rigidity of both Begin and Shamir. Both understood that the reality of Oslo had to be absorbed into the political psyche of the present, while publicly maintaining the past glory of a Greater Israel to the Likud faithful. Netanyahu discovered, as his Likud predecessors had done before him, that prime ministers had to take responsibility for political decisions that might be construed as compromise by those further to his Right. Sharon was not hemmed in by the dead weight of “the fighting family” syndrome, but as an adherent of Ben-Gurion and Dayan, he could change political direction if it concurred with his understanding of the reality. However, at the core of these changes was an undimmed belief in his ability to lead. Sharon therefore supported Netanyahu during the debacle of the Mashʿal poisoning affair.16 He dined with King Hussein and now had good standing in Jordan (p. 302). No longer did he argue that “Jordan is Palestine” and there were even hints in the Israeli press that he entertained the possibility of a Palestinian state. He met Mahmoud Abbas at his ranch in July 1997 and the following month conferred with Dennis Ross—even the Americans had revised their attitude and had now come to seek his views. Sharon’s rehabilitation was complete when David Levy resigned as Foreign Minister at the beginning of 1998.
Netanyahu’s prevarication at appointing Sharon over a period of several months as Levy’s successor did not result in rage from Sharon, but a ratcheting up of statements of public adoration for his leader. The schmooze succeeded and Sharon joined Netanyahu, Clinton, and Arafat—the man he attempted to kill in Beirut in 1982—for discussions at the Wye Plantation talks. Ever wary of the reaction back home, Sharon shook the hands of the Palestinian delegates—with the exception of Arafat. At Wye, Sharon agreed with the Israeli decision to give back 13 percent of West Bank territory. Back in Israel, Sharon encouraged the settlers to grab “hilltop after hilltop” and to establish new settlements. Janus-like, he looked in both directions with equal conviction and certainty.
LEADING FROM THE FRONT
Netanyahu lost disastrously at the polls in 1999—and Sharon became the caretaker leader of the Likud—but he was yesterday’s man and far from challenging Ehud Barak’s power. Taking charge of the rump of nineteen seats for the Likud, Sharon pressed throughout Barak’s tenure for a national-unity government. Landau records that all the opinion polls indicated that only Netanyahu—and not Sharon—was capable of defeating Barak. During the Camp David summit during the summer of 2000, Barak’s coalition disintegrated. In particular, Sharon attacked Barak for his willingness to divide Jerusalem—thereby attracting the national religious, the Haredim, the far Right and many Russians to the Likud standard. Sharon argued that the holiness of Jerusalem was “many times more meaningful for the Jewish people than it is for the Christians and Muslims” (p. 339). Sharon had dinner with Barak at Kochav Yair on September 25, 2000, and then went on a walkabout on the Temple Mount three days later. Jibril Rajoub, the PA’s head of preventive security, had previously advised the Israelis that there would not be any violence as long as Sharon did not enter a mosque. Yet Sharon, when he was a government minister ten years before, had prevented members of the Temple Mount Faithful group from entering the area. Now he insisted on his national right as a Jew to visit the Temple Mount. He had never visited the site either as Defense Minister or as Foreign Minister. This was a location that united nationalist and Islamist, Palestinian and Israeli Arab. There was also resentment about the fact that unless Muslims from Gaza worked in Israel, they were denied travel permission and therefore unable to worship in the al-Aqsa mosque. Sharon’s very presence, given his history, would be seen by the Palestinians as a provocation and a challenge. There was also concerted Palestinian frustration that Arafat’s empty intention to declare a state on September 13 had come and gone. On the other hand, there seemed to be little Palestinian awareness and sensitivity to any Jewish emotional attachment to the Temple Mount.
Following Sharon’s walk, there were violent attacks on Israelis in the vicinity of the Temple Mount. The subsequent killings of Palestinians led to the use of live ammunition by Palestinians on the West Bank. The al-Aqsa Intifada had been ignited, which would claim thousands of lives. In a letter to the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, on October 2, 2000, Sharon criticized her for having insinuated that his visit to the Temple Mount “caused tension” and that it ignited further disturbances. He argued that all this was part of a premeditated campaign initiated by the PA and pointed to an attack in Gaza some ten days previously. Yet, internationally, there was a widespread belief that Sharon’s visit had indeed provided a trigger for an outbreak of violence.
The day before Sharon’s walkabout, Netanyahu was finally cleared of charges of bribery—and this cleared the path for him to return to public life. Barak’s disintegrating coalition persuaded him to resign as prime minister and to seek re-election for this office—but only sitting MKs were eligible to run as candidates and Netanyahu was not an MK at the time. The Likud Central Committee sidelined Sharon and publicly embraced the resurgent Netanyahu. Even though a bill was passed that permitted him to run, Netanyahu inexplicably decided to stay out of the race and not to challenge the candidacy of the marginalized, humiliated, and embittered Sharon. It is an enigma that still remains to be unraveled. Against all the odds, Sharon became Prime Minister at the age of seventy-two.
Sharon’s tenure in office was marked by his crushing of the Second Intifada and his no-holds-barred attitude to the rise of Palestinian Islamism and its coterie of suicide bombers. Following the death of his wife and the continuing hostility of the Likud central committee, Sharon surrounded himself with family and long-term loyalists as his closest advisers. At the beginning of the Intifada, Sharon, it seems, believed that he could still work with Arafat despite his antipathy for the rais (leader). Sharon’s son Omri, lawyer Weisglass, and the secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, Eytan Bentsur, flew to Vienna to meet Muhammad Rashid, Arafat’s financial advisor at the home of Sharon’s long-time associate, the businessman Martin Schlaff (p. 365).
Sharon spoke to Arafat by telephone and Omri and Yossi Ginossar went to meet him to negotiate a cease-fire. Yet Arafat backed away from a proposed draft agreement (pp. 367–68). In his interview with Shaul Mofaz, Landau quotes the then idf Chief of Staff as saying that Arafat instead gave the green light to the Islamists to carry out suicide bombings within the Green Line (pp. 369–70). The attack on the Passover Seder at a Netanya hotel, the refusal to arrest the assassins of Rehavam Ze’evi, and his financing of the arms ship, the Karine-A, convinced Sharon that Arafat had to be eliminated from the political equation. A neo-conservative in the White House made common cause with Sharon. President Bush was prepared to ditch Arafat in a remarkable speech in the Rose Garden. The bulk of Bush’s delivery laid the blame for the violence of the Intifada at the feet of Arafat and proceeded to demolish his international standing—without even naming him. Arafat had survived nine Israeli Prime Ministers and seven US Presidents, but he was now confronted by both Bush and Sharon. The Bush speech symbolically relegated both the Oslo Accord and Arafat, the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner, to history. It also stood in stark contrast to the approaches of both Peres and Powell who believed that only Arafat could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians—and deliver. While Sharon probably never believed in the US President’s advocacy of reform and democratization, Bush’s pronouncements represented a tremendous victory for Sharon in delegitimizing Arafat and neutralizing his involvement.
In parallel with his military assault on Arafat, he now began to follow his own political path that began to verge on the heretical for the Likud faithful. At Latrun on September 23, 2001, Sharon declared his support for a Palestinian state—not a territorially contiguous one, but an archipelago of Palestinian population centers. In June 2002, the Israeli cabinet decided to build the separation fence to keep out the suicide bombers. The Palestinians bitterly complained—not least those who were trapped in no man’s land. However, many Jewish settlers to the East were also left outside what many believed would emerge as the eventual borders of Israel. The fence would encompass 7.8 percent of the West Bank, 76 percent of the Jewish settlers, and 0.7 percent of Palestinians (p. 467). While Sharon was being lauded for his assertive leadership, he was also under pressure to launch a political initiative. Twenty-seven pilots and thirteen Sayeret Matkal reservists had protested at his tactics, but tellingly, four former heads of the Shin Bet criticized Sharon’s view of first crushing terror, then moving on to negotiations (p. 457).
In part, as Landau remarks, Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza—and probably later from areas of the West Bank—was to pre-empt other plans such as Yossi Beilin’s Geneva Initiative and the “People’s Choice” of Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh that 250,000 people signed. Weisglass’s famous “formaldehyde” comment—a sufficient supply was to be supplied to keep any negotiating process in deep freeze—was designed to push such plans into the political sidings. During the primaries for the Likud leadership in 2003, Netanyahu did remarkably well as many resented Sharon’s “moderation.” The chasm in the Likud between the adherents of Netanyahu and the supporters of Sharon grew daily. The debate over the Road Map in May 2002 indicated that seven Likud ministers were in favor while seven voted against or abstained. He told a gathering of the Likud MKs the following day that the Palestinians were “under occupation” (p. 445). According to Ephraim Halevy, the head of the Mossad, Sharon even “signed off on the partition of Jerusalem” (p. 449). In November and December, Ehud Olmert published hitherto unheard-of views on withdrawal in the Hebrew press.
On December 18, 2003, Sharon spoke about “disengagement” to the Herzliya Conference—and not waiting for the Palestinians indefinitely. In April 2004, there was an exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon. Bush refused to back the right of return of Palestinian refugees and argued that the large settlement blocs close to the Green Line would remain part of Israel. A side letter between Weisglass and Rice effectively legitimized settlement building within the construction line of the fence. Israel also promised to remove unauthorized outposts “within thirty days.”
Sharon, however, was defeated in a vote on disengagement by Likud party members by a large margin. Sharon dismissed members of far Right parties Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon from his government so that he would then have a majority in the cabinet for his plan. Netanyahu demanded a referendum; otherwise, he would resign from government. Yet when he and his supporters realized that they were in the minority, Netanyahu decided to stay in the cabinet on the basis that as Arafat was dying and therefore there would now be major changes in the Middle East. Even the invoking of the hallowed Jabotinsky in Likud mythology on the centrality of settlements by Sharon was to no avail. Jabotinsky had stated in 1915:
We have never seen a settlement as an end in and of itself. We have seen it as one of the most powerful means of state-oriented Zionism for achieving our sovereignty over the land of Israel. To us, a settlement has been precious as one of our finest cards in the statesmanship game of the future. But should this settlement suddenly become an impediment in the crucial statesmanship game—to this we shall not agree. A settlement is a means and no more than that. The fact that we love its green orchards, its golden fields and its proud laborers is irrelevant. For us, they are the political avant-garde. It happens that for the sake of a common interest the avant-garde suffers severe losses. We send them our blessings and continue on our way.17
The devoutly secular Shinui left the government and was replaced by United Torah Judaism. This facilitated the absence of Haredim in anti- disengagement protests. The Likud split into Sharon’s Kadima and a Netanyahu-led Likud rump. Other followers of Ben-Gurion, such as Shimon Peres, similarly abandoned their traditional ideological moorings and joined Sharon on this political voyage. The Gaza settlements were evacuated without violence.
At the height of his political success, Sharon, however, was felled in the midst of his triumphs by two strokes in 2006—and remained in a vegetative state until his death in 2014. So which Arik Sharon was the real one? The hero of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 or the Defense Minister during the Lebanon war in 1982? The leader of Unit 101 during the attack on Qibya in 1952 or the advocate of disengagement from Gaza in 2004? The champion of the settlers in 1974 or the builder of the Separation Fence in 2002? It depends on an individual’s outlook—on which episode in this remarkable career matters most. One size definitely does not fit all. David Landau’s biography is well researched and is an intelligent attempt to capture the essence of this driven man. His extensive list of interviews certainly adds to our knowledge. It is an asset to any reader seeking answers to those often unanswerable questions that Sharon’s odyssey has provoked.
1. Editor’s note: The saison (a shortened version of the French phrase, la saison de chasse) refers to the Haganah’s crackdown (1944–45) on the Irgun’s insurgency against the British Mandate government in Palestine. In English, the saison is sometimes referred to as “the hunting season.”
2. Ha’aretz, October 6, 1995.
3. Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars: 1949–1956 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 227–62.
4. Ibid., 245/6.
5. Ibid., 247.
6. Moshe Sharett, Yoman Ishi, October 15, 1953; Morris, 247.
7. Morris, 256.
8. Ariel Sharon, Warrior: An Autobiography (New York, 1989), 91.
9. Arye Naor, Begin ba-shilton: edut ishit (Begin in Power: A Personal Testimony) (Tel Aviv, 1993), 214.
10. Ma’ariv, July 8, 1994; December 7, 1997.
11. Yediot Aharanot, August 7, 1992.
12. Arye Naor, Begin ba-shilton: edut ishit (Begin in Power: A Personal Testimony) (Tel Aviv, 1993), 265–62.
13. “Recommendations and Closing Remarks: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut,” (Jerusalem, February 7, 1983).
14. Ha’aretz, October 30, 1994.
15. The Jerusalem Report, February 24, 1994.
16. Editor’s Note: In September 1997, Mashʿal was targeted for assassination in Jordan by the Netanyahu government. The Mossad’s attempt to poison Mashʿal in Amman ended in failure.
17. Die Tribune, October 15, 1915.
Bustan: The Middle East Book Review, Vol. 6, Nos. 1–2, 2015.