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 embraceâ€”or to appear to be embracingâ€”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 announcementâ€”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.