The Complex Israeli: Ariel Sharon, 1928-2014
In the middle of the 70s, Ariel Sharon asked me to arrange something for him – a meeting with Yasser Arafat. A few days before, the Israeli media had discovered that I was in regular contact with the leadership of the PLO, which was listed at the time as a terrorist organization.
I told Sharon that my PLO contacts would probably ask what he intended to propose to the Palestinians. He told me that his plan was to help the Palestinians to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy, and turn Jordan into a Palestinian state, with Arafat as its president. “What about the West Bank?” I asked. “Once Jordan becomes Palestine, there will no longer be a conflict between two peoples, but between two states. That will be much easier to resolve. We shall find some form of partition, territorial or functional, or we shall rule the territory together.”
My friends submitted the request to Arafat, who laughed it off. But he did not miss the opportunity to tell King Hussein about it. Hussein disclosed the story to a Kuwaiti newspaper, Alrai, and that’s how it came back to me. Sharon’s plan was revolutionary at the time. Almost the entire Israeli establishment – including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres – believed in the so-called “Jordanian option”: the idea that we must make peace with King Hussein. The Palestinians were either ignored or considered arch-enemies, or both.
Five years earlier, when the Palestinians in Jordan were battling the Hashemite regime there, Israel came to the aid of the king at the request of Henry Kissinger. I proposed the opposite in my magazine: to aid the Palestinians. Sharon later told me that he, a general at the time, had asked the General Staff to do the same, though for a different end. My idea was to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank, his was to create it in the East Bank.
(The idea of turning Jordan into Palestine has a generally unknown linguistic background. In Hebrew usage, “Eretz Israel” is the land on both sides of the Jordan River, where the ancient Hebrew tribes settled according to the Biblical myth. In Palestinian usage, “Filastin” is only the land on the West side of the river. Therefore is quite natural for ignorant Israelis to ask the Palestinians to set up their state beyond the Jordan. For Palestinians, that means setting up their state abroad.)
At the time, Sharon was in political exile.
In 1973 he left the army, after realizing that he had no chance of becoming Chief of Staff. This may seem odd, since he was already recognized as an outstanding battlefield commander. The trouble was that he was also known as an insubordinate officer, who despised his superiors and his peers (as well as everybody else.) Also, his relationship with the truth was problematic. David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that Sharon could be an exemplary military officer, if only he could abstain from lying.
When he left the army, Sharon almost single-handedly created the Likud by unifying all the right-wing parties. That’s when I chose him the first time as Haolam Hazeh’s Man of the Year and wrote a large biographical article about him. A few days later, the Yom Kippur War broke out, and Sharon was drafted back into the army. His part in it is considered by many as pure genius, by others as a story of insubordination and luck. A photo of him with his head bandaged became his trademark, though it was only a slight wound caused by hitting his head on his command vehicle. (To be fair, he was really wounded in battle, like me, in 1948.)
After the Yom Kippur war, the argument about his part in that war became the center of “the battle of the generals.” He started to visit me at my home to explain his moves, and we became quite friendly.
He left the Likud when he realized that he could not become its leader as long as Menachem Begin was around. He started to chart his own course. That’s when he asked for the meeting with Arafat. He was thinking about creating a new party, neither right nor left, but led by him and “outstanding personalities” from all over the political landscape. He invited me to join, and we had long conversations at his home.
I must explain here that for a long time I had been looking for a person with military credentials to lead a large united peace camp. A leader with such a background would make it much easier for us to gain public support for our aims. Sharon fitted the recipe. (As Yitzhak Rabin did later.) Yet during our conversations it became clear to me that he had basically remained a right-winger. In the end Sharon set up a new party called Shlomtzion (“Peace of Zion”), which was a dismal failure on election day. The next day, he rejoined the Likud.
The Likud had won the elections and Begin became Prime Minister. If Sharon had hoped to be appointed Minister of Defense, he was soon disabused. Begin did not trust him. Sharon looked like a general who might organize a coup. The powerful new Finance Minister said that if Sharon became commander-in-chief, he would “send his tanks to surround the Knesset.” (There was a joke making the rounds at the time: Defense Minister Sharon would call for a meeting of the General Staff and announce: “Comrades, tomorrow morning at 06.00 we take over the government!” For a moment the audience was dumfounded, and then it broke out into riotous laughter.)
However, when Begin’s preferred Defense Minister, the former Air Force chief Ezer Weizman, resigned, Begin was compelled to appoint Sharon as his successor. For the second time I chose Sharon as Haolam Hazeh’s Man of the Year. He took this very seriously and sat with me for many hours, in several meetings at his home and office, in order to explain his ideas.
One of them, which he expounded at the same time to the US strategic planners, was to conquer Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini dies, he said, there will begin a race between the Soviet Union and the US to determine who will arrive first on the scene and take over. The US is far away, but Israel can do the job. With the help of heavy arms that the US will store in Israel well before, our army will be in full possession before the Soviets move. He showed me the detailed maps of the advance, hour-by-hour and day by day.
This was typical Sharon; His vision was wide and all-embracing. His listener was left breathless, comparing him to the ordinary little politicians, devoid of vision and breadth. But his ideas were generally based on abysmal ignorance of the other side, and therefore came to naught. At the same time, nine months before the Lebanon War, he disclosed to me his Grand Plan for a new Middle East of his making. He allowed me to publish it, provided I did not mention him as the source. He trusted me. Basically it was the same as the one he wanted to propose to Arafat.
The army would invade Lebanon and drive the Palestinians from there to Syria, from whence the Syrians would drive them into Jordan. There the Palestinians would overthrow the king and establish the State of Palestine. The army would also drive the Syrians out of Lebanon. In Lebanon Sharon would choose a Christian officer and install him as dictator. Lebanon would make official peace with Israel and in effect become a vassal state.
I duly published all this, and nine months later Sharon invaded Lebanon, after lying to Begin and the cabinet about his aims. But the war was a catastrophe, both militarily and politically.
Militarily it was a demonstration of “the Peter principle” – the brilliant battle commander was a miserable strategist. No unit of the Israeli army reached its objective on time, if at all. The Israeli-installed dictator, Bachir Gemayel, was assassinated. His brother and successor signed a peace treaty with Israel, which has been completely forgotten by now. The Syrians remained in Lebanon for many years to come. The Israeli army extricated itself after a guerrilla war that lasted 18 full years, during which the despised and downtrodden Shiites in Israeli-occupied South Lebanon became the dominant political force in the country. And, worst of all, in order to induce the Palestinians to flee, Sharon let the barbarous Christian Phalangists into the Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, where they committed a terrible massacre. Hundreds of thousands of outraged Israelis protested in Tel Aviv, and Sharon was dismissed from the defense ministry.
At the height of the Battle of Beirut I crossed the lines and met with Yasser Arafat, who had become Sharon’s Nemesis. Since then, Sharon and I did not exchange a single word, not even greeting each other. It looked like the end of Sharon’s career. But for Sharon, every end was a new beginning. One of his media vassals, Uri Dan (who had started his career in Haolam Hazeh) once coined a prophetic phrase: “Those who don’t want him as Chief of Staff, will get him as Minister of Defense. Those who don’t want him as Minister of Defense, will get him as Prime Minister.” Today one could add: “Those who did not want him as Prime Minister, are getting him as a national icon.” An ex-general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, told me yesterday: “He was an Imperator!” I find this a very apt description.
Like a Roman imperator, Sharon was a supreme being, admired and feared, generous and cruel, genial and treacherous, hedonistic and corrupt, a victorious general and a war criminal, quick to make decisions and unwavering once he had made them, overcoming all obstacles by sheer force of personality. One could not meet him without being struck by the sense of power he emanated. Power was his element. He believed that destiny had chosen him to lead Israel. He did not think so – he knew. For him, his personal career and the fate of Israel were one and the same. Therefore, anyone who tried to block him was a traitor to Israel. He despised everyone around him – from Begin down to the last politician and general.
His character was formed in his early childhood in Kfar Malal, a communal village which belonged to the Labor party. His mother, Vera, managed the family farm with an iron will, quarreling with all the neighbors, the village institutions and the party. When little Arik was injured in a fall on a pitchfork, she did not take him to the village clinic, which she hated, but put him on a donkey and led him for several kilometers to a doctor in Kfar Saba. When rumor had it that the Arabs in neighboring villages were planning an attack, little Arik was hidden in a haystack.
Later in life, when his mother (who still managed the farm) visited his new ranch and saw a low wall with holes for irrigation, she exclaimed: “Ah, you have embrasures! Very good, you can shoot through them at the Arabs!”
How could a poor army officer acquire the largest ranch in the country? Simple: he got it as a gift from an Israeli-American billionaire, with the help of the finance minister. Several dubious large deals with other billionaires followed. Sharon was the most typical Israeli one could imagine, embodying the saying (to which I modestly claim authorship): “If force does not work, try more force.”
I was therefore very surprised when he came out in favor of the law dispensing with the military service of tens of thousands of orthodox youngsters. “How can you?” I asked him. His answer: “I am first of all a Jew, and only after that an Israeli!” I told him that for me it was the other way round.
Ideologically, he was the pupil and successor of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, leaders who believed in military force and in expanding the territory of Israel without limit. His military career started for real in the 1950s when Moshe Dayan put him in charge of an unofficial outfit called Unit 101, which was sent across the border to kill and destroy, in retaliation for similar actions committed by Arabs. His most famous exploit was the massacre of Qibya village in 1953, when 49 innocent villagers were buried under the houses which he blew up.
Later, when requested to put an end to “terrorism” in Gaza, he killed every Arab who was caught with arms. When I later asked him about killing prisoners, he answered: “I did not kill prisoners. I did not take prisoners!”
At the beginning of his career as commander he was a bad general. But from war to war he improved. Unusual for a general, he learned from his mistakes. In the 1973 war he was already considered the equal of Erwin Rommel and George Patton. It also became known that between the battles he gorged himself on seafood, which is not kosher.
The main endeavor of his life was the settlement enterprise. As army officer, politician and successively chief of half a dozen different ministries, his central effort was always to plan and set up settlements in the occupied territories. He did not care whether they were legal or illegal under Israeli law (all of them, of course, are illegal under international law, for which he did not give a damn). He planned their location, with the aim of cutting the West Bank into ribbons which would make a Palestinian state impossible. Then he rammed it through the cabinet and the ministries. Not for nothing was he nicknamed “the Bulldozer.”
The “Israel Defense Army” (its official Hebrew name) turned into the “Settlers Defense Army,” sinking slowly in the morass of the occupation.
However, when settlements obstructed his plans, he had no compunction about destroying them. When he was in favor of peace with Egypt, in order to concentrate on the war with the Palestinians, he destroyed the entire town of Yamit in North Sinai and the adjacent settlements. Later he did the same to the settlements in the Gaza Strip, attracting the enduring hatred of the settlers, his erstwhile protégés. He acted like a general who is ready to sacrifice a brigade to improve his overall strategic position.
When he died last week, after lying in a coma for eight years, he was eulogized by the very people he despised, and turned into a shallow folk hero. The Ministry of Education compared him to Moses. In real life he was a very complex person, as complex as Israel. His personal history is interwoven with the history of Israel. His main legacy was catastrophic: the scores of settlements which he implanted all over the West Bank – each of them a landmine which will have to be removed at great risk when the time comes.