Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon
Sharon: An Israeli Caesar
After the massacre of hundreds of women and children in Sabra and Shatilla in 1982 during the Lebanon War, a commission of inquiry in Israel found that Ariel Sharon, as defense minister, had “indirect responsibility” for the massacre. The massacre was carried out by Maronite Christian units, but the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps were under Israeli control and Israel had responsibility for them. The commission demanded that Sharon be dismissed from the post of defense minister. A friend of Sharon’s said at that time: “Those who didn’t want him as Chief of Staff got him as a defense minister; those who don’t want him as defense minister will get him as prime minister.”
This was not a promise but a threat, and it still hovers over public life in Israel, a sword of Damocles. Damocles, it will be remembered, was invited by the tyrant Dionysus to a sumptuous banquet at which he found himself eating and drinking under a naked sword hung on a thin thread. To give a sumptuous banquet and hang a naked sword from the ceiling over his enemy would not be out of character for Ariel Sharon.
In February Sharon resigned his position in the cabinet as minister of industry and trade. For months he and his allies had been accusing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of being too “soft” on the intifada and even willing to deal indirectly with the PLO; and following the dissolution of the coalition government in March, he continues to challenge Shamir for the leadership of the governing Likud party. Sharon is a man who knows only two states of mind, fighting and preparing for fighting. In his battle with Shamir he has been making alliances on Shamir’s political right, including the members of the small parties, such as the Tehya, that implicitly favor expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories; and pressure from these allies of Sharon’s was one of the main reasons for Shamir’s refusal to deal with the PLO and with his subsequent defeat in the Knesset.
If the current efforts of Shimon Peres to form a government should fail and Sharon were to become prime minister, he would first have to win the support of centrist political opinion, which is willing to tolerate implicit recognition of the PLO. “I am Arik de Gaulle and only I can bring about peace with the Palestinians,” he likes to suggest. Meanwhile he is trying to put across to American public opinion, and especially the organized Jewish community there, a message that can be summarized as follows: “I, Sharon, am not the bully that you think I am. I am a sensitive warrior who is fighting hard and strong for God’s little acre of Jews in their land, against the Arab scoundrels trying to kill them.”
Sharon claims that he is not, as he is often said to be, a master of improvisation, but a careful planner for the future who pays a great deal of attention to details. Indeed, Sharon is a man with a longstanding scheme, and the publication of his autobiography can be seen as part of his grand design to become prime minister of Israel. The book, which was written with the assistance of David Chanoff, may serve Sharon’s purposes. It tells a continuously interesting story of Sharon’s rise to power, and in this respect it is very different from the expensive, illustrated editions that Israeli leaders publish in English and that are bought mostly as bar-mitzvah presents. But an honest bookseller would have difficulty deciding whether he should list Sharon’s autobiography as fiction or nonfiction. Questions about truthfulness arise not primarily from what is in the book, but rather from what is not. Sharon: An Israeli Caesar by Uzi Benziman contains at least some of the missing material.
Sharon, who is now sixty-one years old, has held important positions in Israeli politics and military affairs for four decades. During the 1950s, when he was in his twenties, he became a commander of the Israeli army’s paratroopers. In this position he not only carried out raids on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, but also had much to do with their planning, and with deciding when and how they would take place. He successfully advocated increasing the frequency and intensity of such raids, which led to the Sinai War of 1956. During the 1960s, when Sharon was in his thirties, he was chief of staff of the Northern Command, and had considerable influence on the decision to increase the violence of Israeli attacks against Syria; these attacks were among the principal causes of the Six Day War of 1967. During his forties Sharon had a leading part in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and in setting up the rightist bloc—headed by Menachem Begin—that took over the government from the Labor party in 1977. At the end of the 1970s, as the government minister with responsibility for settlements, he expanded the Jewish settlement of the occupied territories. During the 1980s, when he was in his fifties, Sharon planned and brought about the Lebanon War while defense minister in the Begin government.
Though relatively young compared to other Israeli politicians, Sharon has thus had a central place in Israel’s recent history. To understand Sharon’s past is to understand something important about the state of Israel; and to understand his future, the future of the state of Israel as well. The differences between the Hebrew and English titles of the books under review convey something of the mythology that surrounds him. In Hebrew Sharon’s book is called Halohem, which should be translated as “the fighter.” But Warrior, the English title chosen, sounds more patrician, more Roman, like something from Plutarch.
The English title of Uzi Benziman’s book, Sharon: An Israeli Caesar, refers to Julius Caesar, who crossed the Rubicon and destroyed the Roman republic, suggesting that Sharon threatens to destroy democracy in Israel. The Hebrew title of Benziman’s book, He Does not Stop at Red (Lo Otzer Ba-Adam), is taken from a protest song against Sharon that was popular during the Lebanon War. There is an obvious difference between someone who does not stop at a red traffic light and a leader who crosses the Rubicon, but, as it turns out, Benziman, in many respects a responsible and careful critic of Sharon, also subscribes to the heroic myth prevailing in Israel that Sharon is the best general in the world and one of the best in Israel.
A single motif recurs throughout Sharon’s military and political life: “always escalate.” He believes that in the muddle resulting from an increase in violence he will always come out the winner. He will know how to create a situation in which people turn to him because he is self-confident and he knows what he wants. This constant desire to raise the level of violence springs partly from Sharon’s strategic sense, and partly from his character.
Sharon was born in 1928 in Kfar Malal, a village ten miles north of Tel Aviv. His parents came from Russia. His father was an agronomist named Scheinerman, and his mother had studied medicine but did not finish her education. His father was a stubborn, quarrel-some man, and apparently highly intelligent. The family had strained or hostile relations with their neighbors in the village. When Arik was hurt by a fall and blood was flowing from a deep gash in his chin, his mother did not take him to the clinic in the village, but, in order to avoid contact with the other villagers, she ran with him through two miles of fields to a clinic in a neighboring community. One must distrust or hate others very much, or be greatly hated, or both, to act in such a way. In any case, Sharon seems early to have acquired a tendency to maintain deep suspicion and vindictiveness toward the people around him for a long time. Benziman’s book tells us that as a little boy Sharon walked around with a stick in order to hit the other children in the village.
Kfar Malal was a cooperative village, each of whose families had originally a plot of land of equal size. Sharon’s family was the only one in the village that marked off its property with fences and protected it with dogs. From time to time the family took over more land, and the Scheinerman family plot soon became the biggest in the village. Benziman’s account of the ways the Scheinermans enlarged and secured their plot of land made me think of studies of animal territoriality, as when a lion marks off his territory with urine. It seems that this sense of territoriality was very strongly imprinted on Sharon’s character.
Sharon’s account of his childhood is the most interesting part of his autobiography, and one suspects it was written with two audiences in mind. For the American reader the description of Sharon’s family evokes a frontier settlement in the Wild West—the rugged individualism of the Scheinermans against the other settlers, and especially against the Indians, that is, the Arabs. Sharon never makes it clear that the village he grew up in was a collective settlement based on ideals of mutual assistance and solidarity.
For the Israeli reader Sharon’s account is based on the Zionist myth, according to which, once upon a time, everything was chaos, the land was swamp, and there was darkness on the face of the waters. Then the pioneers, the “men of Genesis,” arrived from Russia and established civilization—the kibbutz and the moshav. These pioneers apparently never did anything trivial in their lives—their every action was exemplary and “larger than life.” Sharon is a son of the gods in this Zionist myth, he was born from the salt of the earth, and he has spent much of his life fighting for the basic elements of life: water, land, and security.
During the War of Independence (1948) Sharon was a company commander in what was for the Israelis the most disastrous battle of the war—the battle of Latrun. Latrun was a police fortress that had been built by the British on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was manned by well-trained regular soldiers of the Jordanian Legion, and in their attack on the fortress the Israelis did everything wrong. They started out late on a scorching hot summer day, carrying insufficient water, and were soon discovered. Hundreds of Israeli fighters were killed, among them Holocaust survivors who had been taken to the battle straight from the boats that had brought them to Israel from Europe. Sharon himself was wounded. He claims that the cries of the wounded who had been abandoned in this battle left a deep impression upon him, and because of them he insists on never abandoning his wounded men in the field.
In 1952 Sharon left the army and began to take courses in Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University, but he was often called back into the army to carry out retaliatory raids against villages in the neighboring Arab countries suspected of providing shelter to Palestinian attackers. To make these raids more effective, the army decided to form a special commando unit, and Sharon was asked to lead it. Called Unit 101, the group was in fact a collection of about forty wild, daring fighters, whose main purpose was to carry out raids across the border. After five months this unit was combined with a battalion of paratroopers, and Sharon became the commander of the battalion (about 300 fighters) and later of a brigade of paratroopers (about 1,200).
Although he was by then no more than a lieutenant-colonel he became an important figure in Israel’s defense policies. The explanation he gives for his success at this point seems to me convincing. At the end of the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion broke up Israel’s best fighting units, the Palmach (assault companies), whose soldiers had been drawn from socialist youth movements and were influenced mainly by the Marxist Mapam party, which was to the left of his own Labor party. Because Ben-Gurion feared Mapam’s influence on young people, he dissolved the Palmach. As a result Israel, during the early Fifties, had no well-trained offensive fighting units.
Moreover, the army at that time was drafting young men who had just arrived in mass immigrations, largely from North Yemen, and did not speak Hebrew, had little education, and were illprepared to take part in a modern army. The Israeli army was then a very ineffectual fighting force, and a battle with the Syrians at Tel Mutila in the early 1950s ended in a severe defeat. The army was unable to stop the infiltrators from among the Palestinian refugees, who at first came mainly to steal from the Israeli settlements, but increasingly committed acts of political terror against civilians. The Commander in Chief, Moshe Dayan, and Sharon, as commander of the paratroopers, did much to raise the standards of fighting in the Israeli army during the 1950s, especially in improving the army’s ability to fight at night.
Sharon was given his first important battle command in 1953 while he was still commander of Unit 101. He was put in charge of an attack against the Jordanian village of Kibbiya, from which infiltrators had been crossing the border. Only a small-scale action had been planned, but Sharon had forty-two houses demolished, some while the families that lived in them were still inside, and he had sixty-nine people killed, mainly women and children. After the attack Ben-Gurion summoned Sharon for questioning. He was concerned that Sharon’s commando unit was composed of fighters who had been in Begin’s underground, the Irgun, and Shamir’s underground, the Lehi, and had carried out indiscriminate slaughter in villages such as the one at the town of Deir Yassin during the War of Independence. When he realized that Sharon’s unit consisted of men from the kibbutzim and moshavim, and thus qualified as “our own boys” from the Labor movement, he was relieved. To protect Sharon and his men he announced that the killing had been carried out by Israeli vigilantes, and not army soldiers.
These events created a strong link between Ben-Gurion and Sharon, one that Sharon would always try to suggest was closer than in fact it was. He would, for example, park his car near Ben-Gurion’s office even if he did not have an appointment with him. In Warrior Sharon attributes his later troubles with the army command to the fact that Ben-Gurion befriended him and, in promoting him, passed over commanders who were senior to him. He gives an almost biblical picture of Ben-Gurion as the old patriarch Jacob, handing over the coat of many colors to his beloved son Joseph/Sharon, for which his older brothers, out of jealousy and vengefulness, throw him into the pit.
Ben Gurion obviously liked Sharon and respected him as a daring and inventive commander, but he also had reservations about Sharon’s truthfulness. Ben-Gurion put a high value on soldiers telling the truth. For him lying was a privilege of political leaders—that is, a privilege reserved for himself—but Dayan and Sharon, soldier-politicians, thought that they should have this privilege as well.
In one important matter Sharon does tell the truth. He writes that the Israeli attacks on the Egyptian army camps in Gaza in 1955, which he commanded, caused Nasser to sign an arms treaty with Russia, through a surrogate, Czechoslovakia, which made Egypt a much more formidable enemy of Israel. On the day of the attacks, Ben-Gurion made a speech in the Knesset saying that he was extending his hand in peace to Egypt; during the night he sent Sharon to strike at Nasser’s army.
The retaliatory attacks carried out by Sharon in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt were intended to raise the cost to neighboring countries of serving as a base for infiltration into Israel. But Sharon’s attacks actually caused infiltration to increase and become more violent. The larger purpose of the attacks was to raise the morale of Israelis by showing that the government was able to react strongly. Sharon was the first Israeli army commander to work closely with the press, and his success was to a large degree a journalistic one. Even primitive military actions were reported in the Israeli newspapers as if they were strokes of pure military genius.
The Palmach, like the French Resistance, was a great literary success. Both movements produced many writers who described their adventures. The French Resistance was in some cases more successful in producing literary work than in fighting the Nazis, while Sharon’s success was not literary but journalistic. The retaliatory attacks were photographed, and Sharon and his fighters made a dramatic impression on the Israeli public, although Dayan, with his eyepatch, was perhaps more photogenic.
In the Sinai War of 1956, however, Sharon got into deep trouble. He was sent as head of the paratroopers’ brigade far into the Sinai to divert the Egyptians from defending against Israel’s real strategy, which was to set up a line of defense nearer to Israel’s borders. He was given explicit instructions not to enter the Mitla Pass and not to get involved in a battle. Sharon, however, wanted to be the first to reach the Suez Canal, and he sent through the pass an “exploratory force” that was ambushed by the Egyptians. The paratroopers found themselves fighting a heroic but unnecessary battle, which claimed about forty dead and hundreds of wounded.
After the war the high command severely criticized Sharon—Dayan accused him of a serious violation of instructions—and so too did the paratroop officers, who accused him of faulty leadership and even of cowardice. Other officers who had been under Sharon’s direct command for years also expressed bitterness about him after the 1956 war. His deputy, Yitzhak Hoffi, who was to become a general and, later, the head of the Mossad, and is now the administrator of the Israeli Electric Company, once said to the head of intelligence that Sharon needed psychiatric treatment because he was suffering from paranoia. Coming from a stolid officer with highly conventional views, the remark would suggest that Sharon’s symptoms were apparently obvious to everyone, even to someone like Hoffi.
When the war was over the military command decided that Sharon’s rise in the army should be stopped. He was sent to the military academy at Kimberley, England, for a year, in the hope that he might emerge an officer and a gentleman. If a gentleman is, as Cardinal Newman once put it, someone who does not inflict pain, then Kimberley certainly failed with Sharon.
When he returned to Israel in 1962 his wife Margalit was killed in a traffic accident. Sharon describes this event with honorable restraint—precisely the same restraint with which he later describes the death of his beloved son Gur, who was killed at the age of eleven when another boy shot him unintentionally with a rifle that was in Sharon’s house. But touching as they are, even these two tales require the corrections to be found in Benziman’s book. Sharon ascribes his wife’s accident to the fact that the car she was driving, which they had brought back from England, had right-wheel drive. But, according to Benziman, many of Sharon’s acquaintances believe his wife committed suicide in the accident after discovering that Sharon was conducting an affair with her younger sister Lily, who, shortly after her death, became Sharon’s wife and the mother of his children. Moreover, after his son’s death Sharon was vengeful toward the boy who had shot Gur, accusing him of intentionally killing him. The boy and his mother, the widow of a pilot, were forced to leave their house, which was near Sharon’s.
Yet the personal life of Sharon, as with other Israeli politicians, is given no importance in Israeli politics. It was because of his record during the 1956 war that Sharon’s career remained blocked for seven years; during this time he wandered around the army like an evil spirit, embittered and feeling ill-used, with the soldiers under his command paying the price of his dissatisfaction. Yitzhak Rabin, who had been appointed commander in chief in late 1963, finally promoted him to the significant position of Chief of Staff of the Northern Command. Sharon, in order to minimize his obligation to Rabin, claims that Ben-Gurion forced Rabin to promote him. Perhaps Ben-Gurion asked Rabin to help Sharon, but he certainly didn’t oblige him to do so, and Sharon knows this.
Such incidents are important for understanding Israeli politics today. Many of the active political leaders in Israel are former army generals, and among these are some who have been in close touch with Sharon, including Mota Gur, Rafael Eytan, Chaim Bar-Lev, Ezer Weizman, Matti Pele, Meir Pa’il, Rechavam Ze’evi, and of course Yitzhak Rabin. In their politics some of these men, like Meir Pa’il, who for years has advocated a Palestinian state, are very left-wing and some, like Rafael Eytan, are very right-wing, but their political positions on the left or right are not necessarily reflected in their relations with one another, and particularly not in their attitudes toward Sharon. More important are often old cliquish affections and hatreds that go back to their army days, and these have been dragged into Israeli politics. An example is Sharon’s rivalry with Rabin for the position of defense minister, in which he tries to create the impression that he would be much more successful than Rabin in suppressing the intifada. This rivalry with Rabin is difficult for him, because he in fact owes Rabin a favor or two. In 1982, during the siege of Beirut, for example, Rabin supported Sharon’s use of harsh tactics, such as shutting off the water and food supplies to the city.
The officers of the Northern Command may have respected Sharon as an officer, but most of them hated him personally. He was capricious, insulting, and wild, as Benziman’s book shows. To his credit it should be said that he acted that way to everyone and not only to his subordinates. His own commanding officer was Avraham Yoffe, Rabin’s brother-in-law, a huge, affable man, nature-loving and Arab-hating. Yoffe is the only man for whom Sharon in his book expresses unambivalent affection. Yoffe gave Sharon freedom to take what military actions he wanted, and within a short time Sharon’s skirmishes along the Syrian border, as I have noted, had much to do with bringing about the 1967 war.
In that war Sharon had his finest hour as one of three division commanders on the Egyptian front in the Sinai. His task was to capture a large, fortified Egyptian enclave at Abu Ageila in the central Sinai. Using shrewd and complex tactics, he succeeded in capturing the Egyptian force with few losses. The arrows he drew on the map to plan the attack actually matched what happened in battle—a rare event in war, and one that brought Sharon much favorable publicity. It is often said that this battle is taught as a model of military tactics in military academies throughout the world.
In view of such claims, it seems worth asking: How good is Sharon? In other words, what kind of military commander is he, from a purely technical point of view rather than a political or moral one? In my view Sharon’s performance has been very uneven. At best he was perhaps the most talented field commander in Israel. He can “read” a battle well; he is imaginative, he is able to keep his soldiers moving according to plan, and he is good at visualizing the topography. But Sharon also has been very unimpressive in some battles. The crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War—in which Sharon, with a bandage on his forehead, was the subject of much publicity—was certainly not well-conducted: too many troops were wasted. And if the Lebanon War, in which Sharon failed badly as the overall commander, is taken into account, his record becomes even more doubtful. Sharon’s average is above average, but not remarkably so. While in art one judges peaks, in war one should perhaps judge by averages.
A similar assessment could be made of Sharon’s intelligence. Sharon at his best can be brilliant, but he can also be stupid. During the years between 1967 and the Yom Kippur War, and especially during the years of the war of attrition on the banks of the Suez Canal, the Israeli general staff could not decide on the best strategy to defend the Southern borders. Sharon was opposed to the Bar-Lev line, a proposed string of fortifications along the eastern side of the Suez Canal. He thought this was a static conception of defense similar to the Maginot line, and he argued instead a mobile defense. Except for the famous Israeli army commander Yisrael Tal, most of the general command opposed Sharon’s idea. Sharon leaked reports to the newspapers about the controversy, in order to create the impression that he was in favor of something “dynamic” and therefore good, while Bar-Lev’s idea was “static” and therefore bad. Since Sharon himself was perceived as dynamic, and the phlegmatic Bar-Lev was perceived as static, Sharon’s view seemed plausible.
This widely accepted, simplified description of the static versus the dynamic, however, is not entirely accurate, as the meticulous and honest book about the Yom Kippur War by General Avraham Adan (“Bren”), shows.* Still, if the war made it clear that Sharon’s criticism of the Bar-Lev line was partly justified, neither the Bar-Lev line nor a failure of military intelligence caused Israel to stumble as badly as it did in the Yom Kippur War. The deeper fault lay with a greater error, in which Sharon was an active participant. The army command and the government believed that Israel’s regular army, with three hundred tanks, was sufficient to block the Egyptians on the southern border. They believed that Israel must not create fears about danger on its borders by calling up the reserves, because doing so would endanger the status quo and invite the superpowers to intervene. As a result Israel simply did not have adequate military forces in place to repel the Egyptians when they attacked. Sharon was lucky: he left the Southern Command and active duty with the army a few weeks before the war broke out.
Sharon had left the army once before, in 1969, when his relations with the entire army command had become intolerable. At that time an election campaign was going on and Sharon joined the right-wing bloc led by Begin. But Pinhas Sapir, then finance minister and the kingmaker of the Labor party, was so afraid of Sharon entering political life that he forced Defense Minister Bar-Lev to take Sharon back into the army. He then began to lead a double life—in the army overtly and in politics covertly.
In 1970 Defense Minister Dayan appointed Sharon to “impose order” in the Gaza Strip, where the refugee camps were controlled by the Palestinian organizations. What Sharon did then is relevant today, since he claims that by using the same methods he would succeed in suppressing the intifada. He ordered that the parents or relatives of a child caught throwing a stone be expelled from the occupied territories and sent into the desert with a canteen and some pita bread—a fate just like their “ancestors” Hagar and Ishmael in the Bible. Sharon also expelled the Bedouins by stopping up their wells—once again a tactic suggestive of ancient Biblical cruelty. Such actions at other times would have made international headlines, but after having been attacked in the 1967 war, Israel had won an exceptional freedom to act. With characteristic hypocrisy, Golda Meir, who was prime minister at that time, privately described Sharon’s imposition of “law and order” in the Gaza Strip as a danger to democracy, while backing him fully in public.
The intifada has radically changed the situation in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian resistance now has broad popular support there, whereas then it was carried out only by the members of a few organizations. A year ago Israel published a list of about 700 wanted men from among the Palestinian activists; simply to be on the list is to be turned into an outlaw. With nothing to lose, these young men have become “fulltime employees” of the intifada, fleeing their homes and clustering together in small groups with such revolutionary names as The Red Eagle, or The Black Panther. The army pursues them with the help of informers and shoots them on sight. They in turn murder anyone they suspect of being an informer. On a much larger scale, the situation resembles the one Sharon faced in 1970, and the methods used by the army are strikingly similar to those Sharon used to “impose order” in Gaza at that time.
In 1973 Sharon left, or was asked to leave, the army. With the assistance of some American supporters he bought a ranch—the largest private farm in Israel—and he openly entered politics. In a short time he succeeded in bringing together the coalition of right-wing parties, headed by Menachem Begin, that made up the first Likud bloc. In an episode hilariously described in his book, we are told how the heavy-set Sharon raced Shmuel Tamir, a rival political leader who is also rather fat, up ten flights of stairs in order to be the first to announce to the press his version of the negotiations. Sharon got there first, entirely out of breath. He soon became the head of the Likud’s election campaign for the Knesset.
When the Yom Kippur War broke out later that year, Sharon went to the Sinai as the commander of a division in the reserves. But he went not only as a commander but also as a politician campaigning for office. He immediately grasped that if he could be the first to cross the Suez Canal he would be “Arik, King of Israel.” To command such a crossing became his primary goal, and he sometimes acted against Israel’s military interests in order to achieve it. He shamefully betrayed the soldiers of another officer, General Adan, who were fighting on the same front, by refusing to send them reinforcements when they were in serious trouble. Intense arguments among the generals were frequent during the Sinai War. After the war, unlike most of the others, Sharon circulated his own version of their quarrels to the American press.
In 1977, ten years after Golda Meir called Sharon “a danger to democracy,” Begin said that Sharon was capable of surrounding the Knesset with tanks. The view that Sharon threatens democracy is held not only by the Israeli left; many in Sharon’s own party are deeply convinced of it, citing his self-evident demagogic qualities. Sharon presents himself as the “strong man,” cursing his superiors and promising to save the people from the dark forces that threaten them, in contrast to the weak and treacherous leaders who can’t be counted on. He shows unlimited ambition and disrespect for the law, and he is given to open displays of physical power. But there is also a distinctive proto-fascist quality in the way Sharon tries to combine the qualities of hero and victim. He attracts the support of the fearful masses in a land of immigrants by complaining that he, like them, is a perennial victim of the “establishment”—yet he also presents himself as the hero who can take on the people in power, and win. He will save the people in their time of danger from all those who threaten their interests. Only he, the victim-hero, knows how to do this.
In 1977 Sharon ran for Knesset on an independent ticket in the same elections that brought Begin and Likud into power. His list won two seats and he immediately joined Begin’s party and the Likud government as minister of agriculture with responsibility for the settlement of the territories. Sharon saw Begin as a pompous rhetorician and a legalist who lacked the capacity to get things done. But he also respected Begin for his hold on the people in the streets. In his book Sharon evidently wants to show that he does not belong to Begin’s crowd: that he is in the line of the Labor “aristocracy” deriving from Ben-Gurion. For his part, Begin, a man of exaggerated Central European politeness, was astounded by Sharon’s coarseness, but he fell victim nevertheless to the flattery and charm that Sharon can use when he wants.
Sharon, who came to be called “the bulldozer,” because of all the roads and settlements he ordered to be built, did more than any other man to advance Israel’s colonization of the territories. But in doing so he abandoned his ministerial responsibilities for agricultural development within Israel proper, which continued to deteriorate while he was in office. Sharon intended to bring an end to Labor’s settlement plan, the Allon plan, which called for settlements mainly in the Jordan Valley. Instead he established settlements throughout the territories, especially on the mountain ridges, and even among the Arab villages, intending to destroy any chance that Israel would ever give back the territories.
Sharon has for years advocated a political plan based on the idea that Jordan is the Palestinian state. He believes that the PLO must be helped to take control of Jordan, where Palestinians are already a majority. Then it will be possible to arrange a practical compromise with the Palestinians concerning the West Bank. Israel will have the territories and the Arabs who remain in the territories, will be citizens of Jordan-Palestine.
Sharon did much to support the Camp David Accords, and agreed to the removal of the settlements in the Sinai, thus giving Begin a free hand to establish them on the West Bank. But his part in destroying the town of Yamit, the most prominent of the Sinai settlements, aroused suspicions toward him among the settlers. They saw him as an opportunist, who, in spite of being their advocate in the government, was capable of changing his spots at any moment.
In the 1981 election Begin won a surprise victory, and he appointed Sharon defense minister. From his first day on the job Sharon started preparing for a general war in Lebanon, collaborating with his commander in chief, Rafael Eytan, who had been one of his officers in the paratroopers. The war had three main purposes: to drive the Palestinians out of Lebanon and into Jordan, in the hope that they would bring down King Hussein; to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon; and to establish a Christian government in Beirut that would make peace with Israel. Sharon sought backing for his plan from Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, and it seems clear that Haig gave Sharon much appreciated support. In his book Sharon first supplies Haig with an alibi, claiming that the latter opposed the Lebanon War, then immediately adds that Haig told Begin during the war, “Once you start it, you have to finish it as fast as possible.”
In my view Sharon attacked Lebanon because he wanted to preside over a “perfect war” that would demonstrate his military and political genius. But he failed miserably in every respect, and one reason he did so was his constant need to deceive the government and the public about the aims of the war. To avoid creating the impression that he was going to invade the entire country right away, he said he would stop at forty kilometers; he then went further, using more and more troops and greater violence each day.
A story I was told by a friend who was a paratroop officer under Sharon illustrates how Sharon escalates a conflict. Once, in the early 1950s, Sharon asked his officers what they would do if they wanted to capture hill X, and the government only gave them permission to capture hill Y. Sharon said: You capture hill Y, of course, and then you send a reconnaissance unit from hill Y to hill X, to make sure that “everything is OK.” The unit “encounters fire” from hill X, you notify the government that the unit is in danger, and you request authorization to “rescue” it. Afterward you explain that in order to save the unit you had to capture hill X. This formula captures Sharon’s logic. His entire career, including the Lebanon War, can be seen in the story of hill X and hill Y.
He will say virtually anything to get his way. For example, he accuses the Labor party opposition of having joined hands with the Peace Now movement, which opposed the war, to bring about his failure in Lebanon. This is nonsense, since Sharon himself knows that the Labor party did its best to avoid cooperating with Peace Now. Only after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres did the Labor party agree to stand on the same platform with Peace Now.
Throughout his book, Benziman accuses Sharon of being a glutton who cannot control his appetite. His tone on this matter is oddly moralistic. However, concerning the one instance in which Sharon’s gluttony had political significance, Benziman is silent. Sharon’s allies in Lebanon, the Phalangists, were a mafia led by the Bashir Gemayel, who immediately grasped that Sharon loved to eat and supplied him with splendid meals to keep him content. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, and the price of these meals was paid by many who are now dead.
Sharon’s dismissal from the defense ministry after the Sabra-Shatilla commission of enquiry presented its findings only heightened his sense of himself as victim-hero. He claims that Begin handed him over to a foreign power in much the same way that the men of Begin’s underground were handed over to the British by Ben-Gurion’s Haganah. But the “foreign powers” in Sharon’s case are judges of the Israeli Supreme Court. Sharon’s description of an episode at the funeral of Begin’s wife reveals just how persecuted he felt:
As we walked toward the open grave, I happened to turn my head and saw behind me two men in black hats, black ties, and black overcoats walking together and staring at me with the blackest of looks. The eyes belonged to Judge Kahan and Judge Barak [two of the members of the commission that condemned him].
Sharon returned to his ranch but he remained a minister without portfolio in the government, and immediately after Begin, in a state of clinical depression, resigned, Sharon staged a comeback. He ran against Shamir for the leadership of Likud, and lost, joining the cabinet instead. Now, by resigning, he has challenged Shamir again.
Sharon produced his most recent spectacle at the Likud party convention in mid-February. What happened there was one of the main reasons the Shamir government fell a month later.
With the help of two Likud ministers, David Levi and Yitzhak Modai, Sharon wanted to get a resolution passed that would make it impossible for Shamir to accept the US-sponsored plan for an Israeli-Palestinian meeting in Cairo. This was to have caused Labor to quit the national-unity coalition government, and ultimately Shamir to fall as prime minister. Two essential conditions were stipulated in Sharon’s resolution. First, that East Jersualem Palestinians would not be allowed to participate in the projected elections on the West Bank; nor would their representatives be allowed to participate in the Palestinian delegation to the talks in Cairo. Second, that Palestinians who had been deported from the occupied territories would also be excluded from participation in the delegation. It was patently clear to everyone that these conditions meant not only that there would be no talks in Cairo, but also that the national unity government would come to an end.
The challenge was direct and blatant. There was a general expectation that a showdown would take place, from which Shamir would emerge victorious. The irony, of course, was that Shamir’s desire for the Cairo meeting to take place, and for that matter the Palestinian elections themselves, was even weaker than that of his three challengers. After all it is Shamir more than anybody else who is the champion of the Greater Israel. However, Shamir at that point desperately needed a space in which to maneuver, so that he could continue his delicate balancing act of procrastinating over the so-called peace process, while both holding his coalition government together and not directly confronting the US. Sharon was trying to deprive him of that space.
Sharon actually forced the Likud party to face a central dilemma. Does its future lie in its being a conservative, centrist, establishment party, or is it rather to become a right-wing radical party? So long as Menachem Begin was its leader, the party somehow managed to embrace—or to appear to be embracing—both these choices. In recent years the rise of the Shas party among the poor oriental Orthodox community on the one hand, and on the other hand the rise of the ambitious young professionals surrounding Shamir (Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert, and Roni Milo), made it more and more difficult for the Likud to continue as both a conservative party and a radical party. The result has been a gradual shift toward the center. Sharon set out to undermine this shift. If the Likud were to become a respectable establishment party, there would be, he senses, no big role for him to play.
As chairman of the convention, Sharon began with an explosive announcement—that he was resigning from the cabinet, so as “to be free to fight for his vision.” He had kept his surprise move secret from his two collaborators, sharing it, as he said, only with his wife. Instantly Sharon became the victim-hero of the convention, which then continued without any agreed-upon agenda. Shamir proceeded to deliver a lengthy policy statement, planning to put it to a vote of confidence. Sharon had in mind a full policy debate, ending with a list of resolutions that would be put to a vote. There being no agenda, however, Shamir tried at that point to “steal” a vote of confidence: he concluded his speech and asked the delegations then and there to endorse it.
Sharon was well prepared for such an outcome. He had a second microphone ready at his seat at the head table, and his followers took the seats in the front of the hall. Just when Shamir was appealing to the delegates to raise their hands in a vote of confidence, Sharon stood up and in a voice louder than Shamir’s quickly read out his own resolutions, asking the delegates to raise their hands in support of them. Pandemonium followed. Shamir and his entourage left the hall, to shouts of “Ceausescu!” Ceausescu!” by Sharon’s supporters, while all of Israel watched what was happening on television.
Sharon certainly managed to cause Shamir considerable political harm. He made it inescapably clear to him that he is a leader of a deeply divided party. The road from the convention to Shamir’s rejection of the American peace plan, and to the subsequent toppling of the government in March, was short. But was Sharon the winner? The answer to this is not yet clear. In announcing his resignation, he at least kept his reputation for surprising and daring moves. In Israel, according to conventional wisdom, you don’t resign. “You leave the cabinet for five minutes and you find yourself out for the next twenty years.”
The political situation in Israel is so much in flux that it is hard as yet to estimate the gains and losses of the different factions. Sharon is perhaps not after all a clear winner. What is clear is that he has managed to upset the status quo. And here we come to the more important question. If Sharon were to become prime minister, what then?
Sharon is an opportunist and he will do whatever he thinks will bring him success. If it were clear to him that making peace would transform him into a national hero, he might make peace. But by temperament he is far more at ease with himself, and in control of his destiny, when he is making war. Therefore the chances that he would be drawn to war are considerably greater than the chances that he would be drawn to peace.
Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron that he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” With Sharon one must add an amendment: it is also dangerous not to know him.
Avraham Adan, On Both Banks of the Suez (Presidio Press, 1980). ↩