Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine


One night in the early 1930s, Vera Scheinerman, the mother of the future Ariel Sharon, grabbed a rifle and a pair of pliers and headed out into the dark. Vera, an immigrant to Palestine from newly Soviet Georgia, was angry at a plan approved by her neighbors in the moshav, or agricultural commune, of Kfar Malal that would force each family to give up a portion of its land in order to found a new village close by. With a gun in her hand, Vera cut the wires which designated the turf the Scheinermans were expected to surrender, thereby collapsing an entire two-mile-long fence and, with it, the plan. Sharon would later tell that story to his own children, a parable on the importance of borders, the merits of bold, if unauthorized, action, and, above all, the power of facts on the ground.

No one would deny that Mrs. Scheinerman taught her son well. Sharon—the Hebraicized name was given to him by David Ben-Gurion, like a Shakespearean king anointing one of his knights—came to embody the stubborn strain of Zionism in both its key aspects: its determined quest for land and its readiness to use brutal force. The result, as several new biographies make clear, was a life rich in the raw material from which myths are made. A warrior at the front line in five successive wars over five decades, Sharon was hailed as a hero at home and reviled as a butcher abroad. He altered the landscape, political and physical, of historic Palestine, leaving a legacy that will long survive him. And, as befits an epic tale, he left behind an enigma, what one of his biographers calls the “mystery of the Disengagement.”

After a career spent in pursuit of Greater Israel, building and expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian land, Sharon’s last great act was the withdrawal from Gaza and the tearing down of Jewish villages which he, more than any other single figure, had helped build. Had it not been for that move, Sharon’s story may well have been recalled as dramatic but essentially uncomplicated: the tale of a soldier of Israel who seized land and chased away enemies. Instead, he is fated to have his life viewed, in part, through the lens of August 2005. What might explain the disengagement? Was it a break from everything that had gone before, or were there clues salted throughout his career? And, most pressingly, what are the consequences of his actions that Israelis and Palestinians will have to live with now and in the future?


His name apart, Ariel Sharon seems to have emerged almost fully formed, inheriting his parents’ vigilance in the face of the Arab threat; sharing their impatience with their fellow Jews, who were regularly disdained for their incompetence and weakness; and revering the value of might. His father’s gift to him on his fifth birthday was a dagger.

The product of that upbringing was a man with a courage that verged on the absurd. At age twenty, despite having his arm in a plaster cast, he led a platoon and was nearly killed in the disastrous Battle of Latrun in May 1948. The Israeli journalists Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom describe in their comprehensive and richly detailed biography his “almost unnatural immunity to fear. Soldiers and officers who served with him in battle testify that enemy fire left Sharon unaffected. He walked upright, impervious, his calm spreading through the ranks.” After one raid against an Egyptian base in Gaza in 1954, Sharon demanded the usual post-mission briefing from his officers, even as a bullet remained freshly lodged in his leg.

It’s hardly surprising that his stunning military successes, winning a tactically complex victory at Abu Ageila in the 1967 war and famously crossing the Suez Canal in 1973, made him a hero to the Israeli public. In an era when plenty of Jews believed the Jewish state was touched by divine providence, Sharon was cast as a figure biblical in stature. Even the usually levelheaded Hefez and Bloom cannot resist. Noting that Prime Minister Sharon liked to be passed a note, even during cabinet meetings, announcing the birth of a calf or a lamb back at his Negev ranch, they write: “Sharon was in good company. The great leaders of the Jewish people had all been shepherds—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David.”

Little of this mythologizing was accidental. Sharon always had an eye for the stunt, whether it was tearing up his Mapai (Israeli Workers Party) card at a press conference in 1973, or staging his visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in September 2000, which was for some the spark and for others the pretext for the second, al-Aqsa intifada but which certainly had a key part in Sharon’s defeat of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in elections the following winter. From the very start, Sharon was tireless in the management of his image; he was trailed by a retinue of sympathetic journalists and PR flunkies. Firsthand evidence comes from Uri Dan, whose memoir, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait, is based on fifty years of devoted service. Officially a journalist for Maariv and the New York Post, Dan admits that he has always been a full-time booster for Sharon. In one unintentionally hilarious sentence, Dan declares, “I have never allowed professional ethics to make me write an article critical of Arik.” The result is a book that gives hagiography a bad name. But at least we can guess that some of the enduringly heroic images, such as the photograph of Sharon, his head bandaged, on the Yom Kippur battlefield in 1973, did not appear all by themselves. If Sharon was hailed as “Arik, king of Israel” more than once in his career, Dan and the gang can claim some credit.


Others, though, never bought the Sharon myth. For them, Sharon was a menace to the morality of the Zionist enterprise and always had been. Of course this divide mirrors the two warring perspectives on the history of Israel itself, a history which can be traced in Sharon’s own long life. On the left side of it stands Baruch Kimmerling, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose brisk polemic, Politicide, argues that Sharon’s career was dedicated to a single major goal: the politicide of the Palestinian people: “By politicide I mean a process that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution—or, at the very least, a great weakening—of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity.”

Kimmerling insists that the pattern of brutality was set early, recalling the secret Unit 101, established to avenge Palestinian attacks on Israel. One raid in 1953 on the al-Bureij refugee camp left fifteen Palestinians dead, most of them civilians. The destruction in the same year of the West Bank village of Qibiya cost sixty-nine Palestinians their lives.

Of course, Sharon’s bloody reputation was sealed by the Lebanon war of 1982, which he directed as defense minister in the Likud government of Menachem Begin. The war itself was born of a characteristic Sharon project, to remake the map in Israel’s favor. His aim was to chase away the PLO, which after being expelled from Jordan had turned southern Lebanon into “Fatahland,” and to install a pliant Maronite Christian regime in Beirut. The result was a military disaster, with Israel losing some 675 soldiers and finding itself mired in an occupation that would take eighteen years to end.

Sharon would later claim that the attack of 1982 was, in fact, the first of Israel’s wars to achieve all its goals, a “righteous war” which had succeeded in breaking “the back of the PLO infrastructure and [had] expelled them from Beirut.” But this defense could not blunt the principal charge against Sharon, that he had sent Christian Phalangist militias into the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they massacred over seven hundred men, women, and children, while beating and raping others. There is no dispute that Sharon and the Israel Defense Forces approved sending the Phalangists to the camps, even lighting illumination flares to assist their Christian allies in their work. The argument centered on whether Sharon believed the Phalangists would simply root out known terrorists or go further. The most damning verdict remains that of Israel’s own Kahan commission of inquiry into the massacres, which concluded that “the Minister of Defense bears personal responsibility.” After the assassination of Lebanon’s Christian president Bashir Gemayel, wrote Kahan, “no prophetic powers were required to know that concrete danger of acts of slaughter existed when the Phalangists were moved into the camps….” Sharon must have known that what Kahan called “massacres and pogroms” were inevitable, and yet he sent the Phalangists in, unsupervised and unrestrained.

Still, it is Sharon’s works of construction, rather than destruction, that arouse the greatest hatred. Sharon understood sooner than anyone else that land won by tanks would be kept by building Jewish homes, farms, and villages on it. In this mission, which Dan calls “Repopulating the Promised Land,” Sharon acted immediately. The 1967 war was barely over when, in his capacity as head of the IDF’s training branch, he ordered the transfer of the army’s infantry school to Nablus, in the West Bank. Other training bases previously in Israel proper followed, all moved across the Green Line. The army bases would be a first step; settlers could live in or close to them, before establishing their own villages.

Thereafter, in every job he held, whether in uniform or in government, Sharon used his position to advance the cause of settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. As minister of agriculture in Menachem Begin’s first government (1977–1981), he diverted large chunks of the budget to the settlers, supplying them with irrigation systems, roads, and houses. By the end of Begin’s first term, Sharon could claim credit for the establishment of sixty-four new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a figure that would later rise to 150. He carried on in the same vein whenever he sat at a ministerial desk through the 1980s and 1990s. Even as prime minister, as late as 2002, Sharon saw his coalition dissolve over Labor objections to a budget that, once again, subsidized the Jewish villages of the occupied territories at the expense of Israel itself.



Yet these two aspects of his record, the brutality of arms and the spearheading of a settlement enterprise beyond anything since Zionism’s earliest days, capture only two dimensions of Sharon. A more rounded picture would note that Sharon was never fully at one with the movement he served as patron. For one thing, he was not religious, wearing a kippah only when politics demanded it and happily supping at tables groaning with food barred by the laws of kashrut. (His eating habits, and his subsequent obesity, are just one example of a man who chafed under discipline of every kind. In the prime minister’s office, aides would smuggle in two falafel sandwiches for him to munch, one after the other, out of sight of the secretary who was trying to ban them.) When exasperated by the most fanatical among the settlers, he would bellow, “I am not the Messiah’s donkey”: it was not his job to bring the Messiah to Jerusalem. Instead, his nationalism was of a different order, atavistic, almost pantheistic; he had a farmer’s reverence for the land as sacred in its own right. His knowledge of the landscape was exceptional and intimate. (He frequently was able to outmaneuver colleagues because he could read and interpret maps more skillfully than they could.)

Intriguingly, Sharon would refer on occasion to places by their original, Arabic names. This might relate to an attribute which separated him from some on the Israeli right. Sharon was not saddled by a record of explicit anti-Arab racism: there were few bigoted quotations to hurl back at him. One of the few such morsels these books reveal is Sharon’s repeated description of Arafat as a “dog.” Instead, Sharon seemed either to see the Arabs as part of the hostile landscape or not to see them at all. He clearly inherited the attitude of his mother, who, when Sharon was involved in peace talks with Egypt, would end her frequent phone calls with three words of advice on dealing with the Arabs: “Don’t trust them!”

Sharon is perhaps best viewed in the light of the movement in which he began his career, the Mapai (Israel Workers Party) of his godfather Ben-Gurion. Sharon was a Mapainik, undistracted by religion, but ruthless in the pursuit of safe and generous borders for the Jewish state. His breakup in 2005 of the Likud, which he had founded in 1973, and his creation of a new party, Kadima, with Shimon Peres is best understood as a return to those Mapai roots.

Indeed, his departure from the Labor Zionist movement which served as Israel’s permanent government until 1977 was less ideological than it was temperamental, born of Sharon’s abrasive relations with his superiors. His greatest internal critics were not so much doves who disliked his politics as army men who despised his serial insubordination. He drew their ire during the war of 1956, when he disobeyed an order to send a reconnaissance patrol into the Mitla Pass, preferring to dispatch an attack force instead: he walked into a trap that cost thirty-eight Israeli paratroopers their lives. He clashed with the brass over strategy in 1967 and again in 1973, when his push for the Suez Canal came in defiance of orders and was motivated, said his accusers, by a lust for personal glory. The Lebanon war is, once again, the most extreme example of how he got his way. Sharon’s cabinet colleagues made clear their view that they had been tricked by maps and plans that said one thing, while the facts on the ground led somewhere else. As Begin himself memorably put it during the war, “I am informed about all of the operations, sometimes before the operation and sometimes afterward.”

And yet they indulged him, Begin as much as Ben-Gurion. Often it was because Sharon was taking action they wanted done, but which they could never admit to publicly. But a deeper explanation surely lies in the deference that diaspora-born Jewish civilians, like Ben-Gurion and Begin, felt for the new breed of Jewish warrior that Sharon epitomized. Kimmerling says Israel’s first prime minister was “enchanted” by Sharon, whom he saw as “the embodiment of his vision of the Sabra, a healthy, Israeli-born Jew free from all the maladies of exile.” Sharon represented an even older mythic type: the shtarker, the man with an ox-like build who would be posted “like a hulking, animated scarecrow” outside the shtetl, a “Jewish thug there to scare off your enemies,” in the novelist Linda Grant’s phrase.1 You might not boast of him in polite company, but you felt glad he was there.


On December 18, 2003, when Ariel Sharon announced his plan to “disengage” from some of the occupied territories, much of the press commentary followed a familiar narrative. He was the aged general determined that his last great battle would be the quest for peace. It was an appealing storyline, one that fitted the repackaging of Sharon (chiefly by US political consultant Arthur Finkelstein) as a cuddly grandpa and tribal elder, an image that had won him two elections. It also had the added advantage of making sense of a final twist that otherwise seemed to contradict Sharon’s entire career.

Such an interpretation may have been apt for Yitzhak Rabin, but it induces skepticism when applied to Sharon. He did not have a moment of illumination, leading him to realize the great folly of his ways and prompting him to reach out to the Palestinians. (In fact Sharon refused ever to shake hands with Yasser Arafat, not a claim his Likud rival Bibi Netanyahu can make.) More prosaic motives played a part. Skeptics noted that Sharon’s moves on disengagement came just as the net was tightening on a series of corruption scandals, which led, eventually, to the jailing of his son Omri. In the view of some commentators, Sharon found the Gaza withdrawal a handy way to distract attention and to bring Israel’s liberal-leaning press on to his side. It was also true that Sharon’s pragmatism tended to increase in direct proportion to his proximity to power: moves he had previously opposed, such as Netanyahu’s Wye River accords, he found he could support once he had a seat at the cabinet table.

More substantially, 2003 was the year assorted peace initiatives were in the air, all of them unappetizing to Sharon. He understood that if he did not come up with a plan of his own, he would be pressured, not least by Washington, to accept someone else’s. Hefez and Bloom correctly note that just two weeks separated the signing of the unofficial Geneva accords—signed by both former high Israeli officials and Palestinian leaders, and warmly received by US Secretary of State Colin Powell—and Sharon’s announcement of disengagement.

Such commentaries imply a reluctance on Sharon’s part, as if the Gaza disengagement represented some betrayal of a career dedicated to an expanded Israel. But that may be a misreading. For Sharon was, instead, making a calculation. Like a gambler who knows to quit when ahead, Sharon spotted the moment for the Greater Israel movement to cash in its chips. Yes, it would have to uproot settlements and give up on Gaza, but in return it would be able to keep choice cuts of the West Bank and do so with the blessing of the United States. Sharon’s greatest achievement came in April 2004, when George W. Bush agreed in writing that, first, the Palestinians would have no right of return to Israel and, second, that “in light of the new reality on the ground, including the existence of sizeable Israeli settlement blocs, it is unrealistic to expect that the result of final status talks will include a complete withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines.”

Sharon saw what the Likud rebels could not see: that by giving up Greatest Israel, they could win Greater Israel forever. In this, he was a true Mapainik rather than a Revisionist, the heir of Ben-Gurion rather than Vladimir Jabotinsky. He did not make a fetish of the biblically defined Land of Israel, but sought simply to push out the state’s boundaries as far as he could. Ben-Gurion had won international legitimacy for his expansion of Israel’s borders from those in the 1947 UN partition plan to the 1949 armistice lines. Now Sharon would complete the job, at least for a generation or two, by expanding the 1949 lines to the new ones he was carving out in 2005. This would be done unilaterally and therefore entirely on Israel’s own terms. There would be no negotiations with Palestinians over future economic relations or conditions of entry or exit, and no Gaza seaport or airfield would be allowed. It was true that he had countenanced a Palestinian state, but that, like the withdrawal from Gaza, was merely part of the price. Given the path of the separation barrier he had built through the West Bank, the chances of such a state being workable and contiguous were sufficiently slim that Sharon knew he was unlikely ever to have to pay it.

The disengagement battle confirms the strange paradox of Ariel Sharon. He was clearly a brilliant tactician, militarily and politically: even his enemies conceded it. Accordingly, the Gaza pullout was executed flawlessly while the political preparations for it, in which Sharon outwitted Netanyahu and the Likud rebels at every turn, were ingenious. As so often in his career, he thought outside the usual constraints. He had done it on the battlefield at Abu Ageila, did it again with his 1973 creation of the Likud, and did it once more with disengagement. Until then, the only Israeli–Palestinian model had been negotiation and land-for-peace. Unilateralism was a new model; others had talked about it but he was the first to make it real. For the peacemakers of the future he had also performed an invaluable service: setting a precedent for the dismantling of settlements and the mass evacuation of settlers.

And yet, when Sharon’s long life is viewed as a whole, one has to conclude that for all his tactical strengths he was a weak strategist. He could see the next hill, perhaps, but he could not and did not grasp the entire mountain range. Three examples make the point. His loathing of the PLO led him to promote an Islamist alternative, the Village Leagues, reckoning that a religious Palestinian leadership would be more pliable. That was a miscalculation whose fruit was Hamas, and the risk that what should have been a dispute over real estate will descend into holy war.

Second, he spent decades fighting “terror” by force, constantly believing that a people could be bombed, harassed, and intimidated into docility. He never learned the obvious lesson of fifty years of such combat: that fighting Palestinian violence with ever-increasing brutality is like putting out a fire with gasoline. He believed that cutting off the head of a terrorist faction would ensure a new, “moderate” leadership when, in fact, ten more violent heads would grow in its place. A long-term strategist would have understood that tactical victories here and there would never bring real security; only a political solution could do that.

Above all, he saw desperately late the threat that his pursuit of the settlement project posed to the very Jewish state he had devoted his life to protecting. Even putting aside the morally corrosive effect of occupation on the occupier, Sharon understood only at the end the problem represented by Israel ruling over a territory that would eventually contain equal numbers of Jews and Arabs. Either the state would be democratic and no longer Jewish or it would have to become what Kimmerling calls a Herrenvolk democracy, an apartheid term used to describe a regime in which citizens enjoy full rights while noncitizens enjoy none. Sharon apparently did not see the simple demographic realities until his final years in office, even though plenty of Israelis, from Ben-Gurion down, had been raising the alarm since the victory of 1967. (Even before the war was over, Ben-Gurion, then out of office, was advocating a conditional withdrawal from the territories just won.2 )

It is true that disengagements from Gaza and heavily Palestinian areas of the West Bank would not have ensured an end to the problem, even if they would have left fewer Palestinians on Israel’s books, so to speak. Israel may well have continued to hold enough land to make a workable, sovereign Palestinian state impossible, thereby keeping Israel as the de facto ruler of all those who live in historic Palestine. Still, the disengagement project suggested that for Sharon the demographic penny had at last dropped. As he prepared to tell the Likud central committee in September 2005, before his opponents cut off his microphone and prevented him from speaking: “We cannot maintain a Jewish and democratic state while holding on to all the land of Israel. If we demand the whole dream, we may end up with nothing at all. That is where the extreme path leads.” He knew that better than anyone. For it was he, Ariel Sharon, who had led Israel down that path for nearly four decades.


When Sharon succumbed to a stroke on January 4, 2006, he bequeathed an uncertain legacy, one suited to a man who had entered the limbo between life and death. He had formed a new party whose defining principle was unilateralism. Surely, some commentators speculated, Sharon would not have created Kadima unless he planned further territorial withdrawals and wanted to be free of the recalcitrant Likud. And yet in September 2005 he had told Uri Dan, “Fortune-tellers claim to know that another disengagement is planned. Another lie. The withdrawal from Gaza is an isolated act.”

Sharon’s successor and protégé, Ehud Olmert, could have perpetuated that ambiguity and used it to his advantage. Instead, in the election campaign that Sharon had begun but could not finish, Olmert eschewed the old man’s opacity and came clean, explicitly promising further pullbacks and saying that 70,000 settlers on the wrong side of the fence (or wall) would have to clear out of their houses and move back into Israel proper. The immediate events that followed Sharon’s stroke seemed to entrench unilateralism still further. The success of Hamas in Palestinian elections in January apparently confirmed the notion on which unilateralism was predicated: that there is no partner on the Palestinian side.

Olmert’s project, then, should have been straightforward. Yet it has not turned out that way. There were always fears that unilateralism could not work without Sharon. On the Nixon-to-China principle, it would take a strongman of the right both to give up land and to take on the settlers who lived on it. The Gaza settlers were no match for Sharon, but the more numerous colonists of the West Bank would have steamrollered over Olmert.

As things stand, that fear will never be tested. For Olmert has indeed suffered for not being Sharon, but not in the way most anticipated. In July 2006, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah thought he could take a jab at Olmert, a mere civilian sitting in the chair of the feared General Sharon, without facing too fierce a response. Gamal Abdel Nasser had made a similar calculation in 1967, reckoning that Levi Eshkol would be a soft touch after the mighty Ben-Gurion. Both Nasrallah and Nasser got it wrong: the technocrats, Olmert as much as Eshkol, proved too weak to repel the bellicose demands of their generals. Both hit back too hard. As the political scientist Yoav Peled has noted, under Olmert’s predecessors, Sharon and Ehud Barak, “both of whom were retired generals, Israel had met minor Hizbollah operations with carefully measured responses.”3 With Olmert in charge, Israel went to war.

The result was a month in which northern Israel was bombarded by Hezbollah rockets, which emptied much of the region and turned its people into refugees, while forcing others into shelters. Israel’s failure to destroy Hezbollah, or even to achieve its initial war aim, the recovery of two of its soldiers abducted by the Lebanese movement, has done enormous damage to Olmert. Nonvictory for the IDF is a kind of defeat and a consensus has formed that the war was prosecuted ineptly, with insufficient resources and a botched strategy. But the war has discredited not only Olmert but unilateralism itself. The lesson many Israelis have drawn from both the Lebanon experience and the ongoing violence emanating from Gaza is that unilateral withdrawals simply leave Israel exposed to hostile forces. If the old slogan was land for peace, the common perception of unilateralism is that it translates into Arabic as land for war.

Olmert was swift to learn the lesson, announcing that his plans for “convergence,” i.e., further withdrawals from the West Bank, were on ice. Nor did he deny that, with the raison d’être of his government now demolished, he was a leader without a purpose. “A prime minister has to run a country,” he told Haaretz in a Rosh Hashanah interview. “He does not have to wake up every morning with an agenda.”4 Yediot Achronot’s Nahum Barnea wrote that “Olmert, who wanted to withdraw the settlers inside the Green Line, has now withdrawn into himself.”5

Into the void has, inevitably, flowed scandal, both financial and sexual—Israel’s president stands accused of rape—and recriminations about the mishandling of the war. The current Israeli mood recalls the atmosphere after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with a commission of inquiry probing what went wrong and a widespread sense that the political class is rotten.

How might Israel break out of this impasse? Optimists hope that the discrediting of unilateralism will lead not to a rejection of territorial concession per se, but rather to a desire for arrangements negotiated with Israel’s neighbors. There is some polling evidence in that direction. But it is an open question whether Olmert would be allowed to make such a shift. On October 5, Yediot Achronot reported that Israelis “understood from President Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between Israel and Syria.”6 Apparently, the US administration has decided Syria is an honorary member of the axis of evil and is not to be negotiated with. Israelis say that Washington takes a similarly dim view of any possible Israeli opening toward Hamas, lest that be seen as a weakening in the war against the enemy President Bush brands as Islamic fascism.

If negotiation is not allowed, then that leaves either the status quo or a resuscitation of the unilateralist idea. Its underlying logic remains as robust as ever: demographers project 2007 as the year Jews and Arabs between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea reach numerical parity. Olmert is too tarnished to revive a unilateral policy, if only because Israelis are likely to believe that their post-Sharon experiment with nonmilitary, technocratic leadership has proved a disaster. Instead it might be wise to keep an eye on the former prime minister and decorated soldier Ehud Barak.

Either that, or the paralysis endures, with no movement and only a steady drift to a more bitter right. Polls show Netanyahu ahead, but just behind him is the Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman, a far rightist keen to be Israel’s Vladimir Putin. Olmert’s political position was so perilous that in late October he shored up his coalition by bringing in Lieberman as his deputy prime minister. Lieberman advocates handing over heavily Arab towns in the Galilee region of Israel, without their consent, to the Palestinian Authority, in return for which Jewish settlements on the West Bank would be annexed to Israel. In this way a substantial number of Israeli Arabs would be stripped of the Israeli citizenship of their birth. He has also suggested that Israeli Arab members of the Knesset who have had contact with Hamas or do not celebrate Israeli Independence Day should be executed. Those Israelis who for so many years feared that Sharon would one day rule Israel as a dictator, suspending democracy, may yet live to see something not far from it.

November 15, 2006

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December 21, 2006