Sharon: an Israeli Caesar
by Uzi Benziman, published by Robson Books, 276 pp, £12.95
Anyone with, what might be termed “a liberal conscience” always tries to locate the good, those small islands of common humanity, in the views and actions of an opponent. However, by the time I had passed page 200, with the war in Lebanon yet to come, I knew that I had failed miserably. I was unable to find even the smallest shred of warmth or decency in the man hailed by many British Jews during the Begin years as yet another stereotypical Jewish hero. The author, Uzi Benziman, editor of the weekly magazine section of Ha’aretz obviously planned it that way. In interviewing over a hundred people who have been close to Sharon at one time or another, he has catalogued every malicious rumour, audible murmur, item of gossip and petty conspiracy surrounding the man. A touch of Sharon’s spitefulness, a preponderance for intrigue and slander, colourful insults and foul language and you have it — not so much the analysis of Sharon’s rise and continued survival, more a recipe for a soap, Israeli style. Sharon’s vindictiveness is almost apolitical in that no-one was left untouched by his threats and machinations. There appears to be no-one that he has not argued with, no-one whom he has not trodden upon, no-one whom he respects. Within the Likud government, Sharon intimidated virtually everyone in the Cabinet by his blustering, swaggering manner. Even Begin who was venerated by all Revisionists was not spared. His closest and perhaps his only confidante is his wife, Lily with whom he discusses everything and who is a power within her own right.
Is Sharon a right wing nationalist? Probably, but ideology occupies a low rung on the ladder of priorities. In the mid-seventies, Sharon’s Shlomzion party offered itself as the rational liberal alternative to the discredited Labour and Likud blocs. Associating with well-known leftists as Yossi Sand, Amon Kenan and Uri Avneri, Sharon was actually scheduled to meet Yasser Arafat in Paris until the PLO leader pulled out. The simultaneous emergence of Yigal Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change which similarly appealed for the vote of the disaffected, put paid to that.
So Sharon politically summersaulted to the diametrically opposite end of the political spectrum as the standard bearer of the far right. From the PLO to Gush Emunim in one easy step.
The positive side is that Sharon is a brilliant military tactician who courageously leads from the front into battle. The problem is that his Napoleonic virtue in times of war lead to Bonapartist aspirations in peacetime. It is clear that he has no real belief in democracy and would be happy to dominate an autocratic system of government.
Benziman labels Sharon “an Israeli Caesar”. But he is also Brutus, judging by his adeptness at stabbing his colleagues in the back. Indeed, this complex man sometimes plays both parts simultaneously in a spectacle of self-destruction. Sharon did not cooperate with Benziman. If he had done so, perhaps a sounder, more balanced account would have emerged. Instead, the effect is almost counterproductive. Benziman’s strongest contribution is that he produces information about Sharon’s early career. It does not make pleasant reading – even more so for the committed supporter of Israel. For those who experienced the subtleties of distortion and disinformation, the feeling of being taken for a ride during the war in Lebanon, it is easy to recognise that technique in Sharon’s career in the Israeli Army. Benziman writes:
“Arik’s behaviour in Lebanon was a repeat performance of his previous behaviour – in Kibia, Kalkilyia, at the Mitla, at the northern border in the 1960’s and during the Yom Kippur war. He again demonstrated his predilection for excessive violence and for destroying his own creations (militarily speaking). In 1982 Arik Sharon offered incontestable proof that he had neither matured nor mellowed over the years. All the patterns were still recognizable in his plans. They were the same patterns that emerged in every position he had held, from early manhood on. He was not able to control himself, he was not able to keep his passions in check, even as he attained the heights of national responsibility. The international uproar over the horrendous events in Sabra and Shatilla merely fed his paranoia: he was convinced that people had a grudge against him. According to Uri Dan, one of Arik’s most loyal stalwarts and his official spokesman at the Ministry of Defense – it was his opinion that Arik’s performance in Lebanon could be compared only to that of Judah Maccabee in the history of Israel – Arik really believed that the public outcry over the massacre was a conspiracy against him, born of jealousy.”
From the beginning of his career, Sharon’s methods projected no standards of morality towards the Arab enemy and an apparent indifference to loss of life. This naturally created personal and professional enemies. Incidentally he received the backing of both Ben-Gurion and Dayan in his leadership of the 101st unit which was responsible for cross border raids. Ben-Gurion viewed Sharon as a fighter and a soldier, an individual who brooked no criticism from his bureaucratic superiors, a soldier who got the job done. The romantic “Dirty Dozen” image although carefully cultivated, was a false one. Even Ben-Gurion soon began to have his doubts. Following yet another murderous ambush by Sharon’s unit, Moshe Sharett, then Prime Minister of Israel, recorded in his diary:
“We have allowed the paratroop battalion to raise revenge to the level of principle …. It has been formalized and even sanctified as a tool for collective revenge for the entire country. The spirit and training of this battalion have, in fact, become key factors in determining the policy of its use. Whenever a decision is made by the Prime Minister not to use this potent uncontrollable force, the battalion is overcome by depression and rage to the point of threat to the rule of civilian government.
Arik Sharon is Israel’s “Rambo” par excellence. Be undoubtedly appeals to the primitive instincts in the Jewish psychological make-up and not simply ones of security and self-preservation. Yet he survives. Why? Probably through sheer willpower and the ability to manipulate the baser elements in sections of the body politic. Will he become leader of the Likud or even Prime Minister? Probably not, but then as history has shown, nothing is impossible.
New North London Synagogue Magazine September 1985