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.
Avraham Adan, On Both Banks of the Suez (Presidio Press, 1980).↩
Avraham Adan, On Both Banks of the Suez (Presidio Press, 1980).↩