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.