[inset_left]Arik: The Life of Ariel SharonBy David LandauAlfred Knopf, 656 pagesNew York, 2014[/inset_left]How history judges a political leader has always depended, at least in part, on the timing of his departure from power or death. In that context, Ariel Sharon might be an exception; he did not leave center-stage in any of the usual ways that such a momentous event happens in politics. Nor did he die in the way most people do. In fact, he had been dying since January 2006. Kept biologically alive but in a coma, the former Israeli prime minister was an illustration of the adage that old soldiers do not die, they just fade away.
However, having now finally ended his days, Sharon’s memory, and in some cases his fingerprints, will not fade away from Israel’s stormy politics. The last member of the founding fathers of Israel to serve as prime minister, Sharon was also among the first to take up arms, initially against the British and then against the Arabs, to realize the Zionist dream of a state for the Jews. Thus this new biography, though focused on Sharon, is also a narrative of Israel’s emergence as a state and the dramatic events that have marked its six decades of existence.
David Landau is well placed to tell that story. An Israeli journalist of British origin, Landau is enough of an insider to understand the mindset of people like Sharon. At the same time, he is sufficiently an outsider to be able to regard Sharon, and indeed Israel as a whole, from enough distance to be objective.
Leafing through the album of Sharon’s political portraits that Landau provides, one encounters a remarkable degree of diversity within sameness. We first encounter Sharon as a Kibbutz boy, the son of immigrant parents from present-day Belarus in search of a better life and a surer measure of security. Ariel is a fat, quarrelsome, but ultimately obedient son with no easily attestable talents. Next, we see Sharon as a young man who joins clandestine armed groups to fight for an Israeli state while all the time dreaming of becoming a farmer. Turn the pages of the album and you find Sharon fighting in the first war against the Arabs in 1948, an event that convinced him of his vocation as a professional soldier. By 1956, Sharon is already the rising star of the Israeli army with a “brilliant performance” in the war against Egypt over the Suez Canal. Next, according to Landau, Sharon played a “decisive role” in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel’s Arab neighbors. Following the example set by other Israeli generals, Sharon entered politics and rose to become Minister of Defense, and thus the man in charge of invading Lebanon in 1983.
Landau shows that, all along, Sharon’s political profile was depicted in chiaroscuro. At one level, he was always the brilliant general capable of exploiting the slightest opportunity. At the same time he also had a darker side that made many Israelis uneasy. It is obvious that Landau did not like Sharon personally. The best he could offer was a grudging admiration for a man who wrote an unexpecteddenouementfor the drama of a checkered career.
Consider just two facts. Sharon was the only Israeli senior general to have enjoyed the support or admiration of almost all the top figures of Israeli history. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, intervened on more than one occasion to enhance Sharon’s career and protect him from his rivals. Prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir loved Sharon, while another prime minister, Menachem Begin, was even ready to overlook Sharon’s penchant for ignoring many rules. Politician Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were among the older generation of Israeli top brass who had a soft spot for “fat Ariel.” Those who ran into Sharon ended up calling him by his diminutive name, Arik, as a form of endearment. To them he was the chubby, not to say cuddly, teddy bear with the abrasive manners of a hedgehog when it was required.
How and why Sharon managed to seduce so many wily politicians and generals remains a mystery that Landau is unable, or unwilling, to explain. Nor does he tell us how and why so many Arab leaders started by hating Sharon but ended up liking him, to say the least. Sharon forged a half-hidden friendly relationship with the Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad. He believed that the fact that Assad was in control of Syria in 1973 was “a golden chance for Israel.” Sharon started by calling for the transformation of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into “the Palestinian state” that everyone asked for. However, he ended up abandoning that mantra and developing very close ties with King Hussein. The Egyptian President Anwar Sadat also liked Sharon despite the fact that in 1973 the Israeli general had led an expeditionary force to the western bank of the Suez Canal. As Minister of Agriculture, Sharon made frequent visits to Egypt, where he was always greeted personally by Sadat.
Sharon committed what to most Israelis was akin to the crime oflèse majesté by publicly declaring that, if necessary, Israel should go to war without consulting the US. “No nation can survive if it kowtows to others, even a superpower,” he said. And, yet, Sharon was the darling of the American political establishment and, as prime minister, developed exceptionally close ties with President George W. Bush.
For decades, Sharon was arguably the most controversial and, to put it mildly, the least liked Israeli politico-military figure. Not all Israelis bought into Sharon’s image as “the dedicated soldier” or “guardian of Jewish interests across the world.” Josi Beilin, a protégé of veteran Labour Party leader Shimon Peres, had this to say: “Sharon is the ugly Israeli, a dangerous man.”
Even Sharon’s friends were uncomfortable with what they perceived to be his lack of scruples. This is how one of Sharon’s closest friends in the Likud Party described him: “Sharon is a man without principles, without human feelings, without any moral norms whatsoever.” When news of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila hit the headlines, more than 400,000 Israelis assembled in Tel Aviv to call for Sharon to be tried for “war crimes” after the Kahan Commission ruled that, as Minister of Defense, he bore “personal responsibility.” Sharon’s critics even doubted his sincerity as a Jew. After all, he made no fuss about his food being kosher, cared little about religious rites and had only a fuzzy notion of who was who in Israeli mythology. Nevertheless, Sharon always managed to land on the right side of things. The conclusions of the Kahan Commission were dismissed by Israel’s highest judicial authorities. Attempts at dragging Sharon into corruption scandals that hit other prominent Israeli leaders, among them Rabin, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, led nowhere.
Many Israelis regard Sharon as the father of the Jewish settlements that have transformed the West Bank into a geopolitical version of Swiss cheese. As Minister of Housing, Sharon literally bulldozed his way through Palestinian lands, speeding up a process that has led to the settlement of half a million Jews in what he called “the disputed territories.” And yet, Sharon never stopped surprising friend and foe. He jettisoned Likud, the party that had been his political nursery, to form the Kadima (Future Party), now buried deep in the past, to pursue a new policy that he named “disengagement.” This was to lead to a gradual but amicable geopolitical divorce between Israel and the Palestinians. The first phase of the plan was implemented in the Gaza Strip when all Israeli settlements were dismantled. Much to everyone’s surprise, the scheme did not provoke an Israeli civil war even on a small scale in Gaza. Landau provides ample testimony and evidence that Sharon was serious about applying the same scheme to the West Bank, albeit by preserving some of the Jewish settlements plus East Jerusalem.
Casting himself as a man of peace, the quintessential Israeli “warmonger” became the darling of peaceniks who staged a 150,000-strong demonstration in support of his “disengagement” strategy. By telling the story of one man, Landau offers us a detailed and highly readable story of one of the world’s newest nation-states, and possibly the only one whose right to exist is still questioned by many across the globe. Sharon’s personal life was full of colorful anecdotes, depicted by Landau against the sepia background of Israel’s political history.