In the Shadow of Sharon

Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos
Ariel Sharon discussing the 1982 invasion of Lebanon at Tel Aviv University, 1987

Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” An obituary, prepared ahead of someone’s death, has been called emotion anticipated in tranquility. In reading the well-prepared obituaries about Ariel Sharon, one gets the impression that the eight years he’d spent in a vegetative state removed the sting from the strong emotions that he aroused in his lifetime. His death, unlike his stormy life, was accepted, if not in complete tranquility, then at least with resignation.

According to Nahum Barnea, Sharon’s sons, Omri and Gilad, affectionately called their father “the Caucasian.” They didn’t mean a white man. What they alluded to was the fact that although Sharon’s parents, Vera and Shmuel, were both born in what is now Belarus, they met and married in the Caucasus. But they meant even more than that. The word “Caucasian” may evoke a strongly built agrarian tribal chieftain—a man fiercely loyal to his family and his people, while ferociously mean and vindictive toward his enemies, namely, the rest of the world.

Indeed, Sharon was loyal to his friends. I once heard from Yael Dayan, the daughter of Moshe Dayan (himself an example of a man reputed to have no friends), that when her husband Dov was severely debilitated from Parkinson’s, only Sharon, his old friend, kept ringing him week in and week out. As for Sharon’s vindictiveness, a case in point is Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, in 2002, in which Sharon cornered Yasser Arafat within the confines of his compound in Ramallah and personally went to great lengths to make the Palestinian leader’s life as miserable as possible. His only constraint was a promise he had made to the Americans not to kill Arafat. An acquaintance of mine who knew about Sharon’s obsession muttered under his breath that this was what gave revenge a bad name.

Sharon was born in 1928 in Kfar Malal, a cooperative village about ten miles north of Tel Aviv. Back then, each family in the village was allotted a plot of land of equal size. But as Uzi Benziman, Sharon’s unauthorized biographer, tells us, Sharon’s family was the only one in the village that demarcated its property with fences and protected it with dogs. Every once in a while the family enlarged its plot so that soon it became the biggest in the village. In this account, the family relied on its dogs, but had no friends.

This anecdote carries with it a sense of territoriality, like old lions that urinate to mark their domain. Later, of course, Sharon was in charge of Israel’s occupied territories. Then, too, the feeling was that he was not some messianic ideologue of the Greater Israel, but a man possessed with something far more basic: raw animal territorialism.

By all accounts, Sharon had an…

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