Warrior: The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon
by Ariel Sharon, by David Chanoff
Simon and Schuster, 571 pp., $24.95
Sharon: An Israeli Caesar
by Uzi Benziman
Adama Books, 276 pp., $17.95
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).