Arik Shaon: Master Of The Turnaround

In his just-released biography of Ariel Sharon, David Landau chronicles the transformation of a hawk.

01/10/2014
Culture Editor
Arik, The life of Ariel Sharon
Arik, The life of Ariel Sharon

When Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel in 2001, David Landau was almost in mourning. He and his left-leaning friends thought of Sharon as a disaster, a warmonger. But Landau changed his mind, as he witnessed Sharon’s own transformation as a leader, ultimately breaking with his past and directing Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Landau, a former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, has written a compelling, in-depth biography, “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon” (Knopf), just published as Sharon’s condition is rapidly deteriorating. The prime minister suffered a massive stroke at the height of his power and has been in a coma since January 2006, where the book ends. [Sharon died Saturday, Jan. 11; he was 85.]

“I hope that my way of looking at things and my analyses are all new ground,” Landau says by telephone from his Jerusalem home. He’s unequivocal in his portrayal of Sharon’s role in turning around the Yom Kippur War and later, in the disengagement from Gaza, laying the grounds for future peace negotiations. Raising questions about Sharon’s role in the first Lebanon war, he suggests that then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin had a decisive role in events that Sharon was blamed for. He also says that events sparking the beginning of the second intifada were more complicated than Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000. And, Landau describes a violent episode perpetrated by Sharon against the Bedouins in January 1972, resulting in dozens of deaths, reported for the first time.

Others have written about Sharon, including journalist Uri Dan, a confidante of Sharon (“Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait,” 2006); his son Gilad (“Sharon: The Life of a Leader,” 2011); and Sharon himself penned a memoir (“Warrior,” 1989). But Landau’s is the most objective and nuanced book assessing the life.

Landau paints Sharon, born in 1928, as a man of large ambition and appetite, who loves the land of Israel and the IDF, a man of military prowess and extremism — and great personal charm. He’s not without flaws here — he’s also seen as stretching the truth, but, Landau points out, perhaps not any more than others in the military. He was felled before he could finish his life work, at a moment of hope for Israel.

Now the Israel correspondent for The Economist, the British-born Landau is the author of “Piety and Power” and collaborated on two books with Shimon Peres. In the acknowledgments to “Arik,” he includes a long list of interviewees, including his son Omri Sharon, Shimon Peres, Natan Sharansky and Marit Danon, secretary to Sharon and five previous prime ministers, and then writes that he wished that he could include Ariel Sharon on the list. “I wish I’d had the journalistic good sense to spend more time talking to him during the wilderness years. But like so many Israelis, I wrote him off as yesterday’s man.” 

Landau explains that the early hints of Sharon’s turnaround regarding the settlements and the Palestinians were his steady restraint in fighting the intifada. Sharon “had matured, and was running the country very different from how he ran his military unit.” After the 2002 bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on the eve of Passover, he launched Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF invasion of major West Bank towns. This was Sharon’s only war under his tenure as prime minister. There were indeed many casualties, but Sharon held back on unleashing firepower, and the number of terror deaths went down. Landau writes, “For all his banging on the table and barking at his generals, he kept Defensive Shield within the confines of his new, prime ministerial weltanschauung: restraint is strength.”

When asked to explain Sharon’s turnaround in viewpoint, Landau quotes a line from an Israeli song, “What you see from here, you don’t see from there.”

In detail, Landau reports on the last year and a half of Sharon’s public career, when he pushed forward the issue of disengagement. In October 2004, Sharon told the Knesset, “In all my years as a military commander, as a politician, as a minister, and now as prime minister I have never had to take such a hard decision.” A heckler interrupted, “So why are you doing it?” But Sharon continued, in what Landau describes as “perhaps the most significant [speech] of his life,” assuring the settlers that he understood their pain and fury, and accepting responsibility for sending many to the region.

“I am deeply convinced in the depths of my soul and with my entire intellect that this disengagement will strengthen Israel’s hold on territory vital to its existence,” Sharon said, and went on to assert, “Israel aspires to be a model of democracy. It cannot live with this reality indefinitely. The disengagement plan opens the gate to a different reality.” He then spoke directly to “our Arab neighbors,” grieving the many innocent people killed and assuring them that “war is not an immutable divine decree.” Powerfully, he ended by quoting Begin about the settler leaders, and, at the same time, demonstrating his leftward shift, he reminded them that even before they were born, others worked and sacrificed day and night “without an iota of any messiah complex.”

Landau also praises Sharon’s handling of the settlers at the time of the disengagement. There had been talks of civil war, threats that the settlers would not evacuate willingly, fears of a confrontation with the army. Many were worried, he explains, but Sharon was not; rather he was determined to push through the disengagement, a monumental change of direction for Israel.

Recalling a conversation with Sharon, when Landau asked the prime minister if he would go down south and take command of the troops himself if the disengagement ran into trouble, Sharon replied, “You worry too much.”

Sharon deployed the army in such an overpowering way that the settlers succumbed. The disengagement took eight days: There was no shooting; none of the fears of violence came to be. “Sharon can take the greatest credit for that,” Landau says. “That remains a central fact in Israeli politics.” Now, even as some settlers are again talking their messianic talk and have reconstructed their positions a bit, “there’s no talk that it’s not possible to move settlers. He showed us a precedent.”

Landau interviewed many people regarding Sharon’s role in the Yom Kippur War, and even though many tried to persuade him otherwise, he’s convinced that “without Sharon, there never would have been a crossing of the Suez Canal. In this desperately dangerous period of Israel’s existence, Sharon was the man who turned the war around.”

Before the war, in January 1972, deep in the Sinai, Sharon orchestrated a forcible uprooting of 3000 Bedouins from their homes in the middle of the night, leading to more than 40 deaths, from exposure to the freezing desert night. Afterwards, there was a total cover-up, with not a word published and no action against Sharon. This was part of a top-secret war maneuver, code-named Oz (power), enabling a military exercise nearby — the attempt to ferry an entire armored division under fire across the Suez Canal.

Landau comments on Sharon’s relationships with other Israeli leaders, forged in the military. He and Moshe Dayan were, in a sense, kindred spirits, in their willingness to maneuver around colleagues and “round the edges of truth.” His close bonds with Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak were also based in their army service and their connections transcended the political divide.  He and Rabin “ate from the same mess tin,” as old soldiers say; he told an interviewer that they “marched together, in lockstep, over decades, on tough missions and in life-and-death situations.”  Barak served under Sharon in the Yom Kippur war; during Barak’s prime ministership, the two men would hurl insults at each other during the day and then spend evenings in intimate conversation. Landau holds that Barak’s earlier tenure was influential in shaping Sharon’s outlook as prime minister.

The book focuses more on Sharon’s military and political life, but Landau does describe his childhood on a moshav, Kfar Malal, northeast of Tel Aviv; the death of Sharon’s first wife, Gali, in a car accident and his marriage to her sister Lily, with whom he had a long and loving marriage; and the accidental death of his oldest son Gur (he and some other children were playing with loaded guns). After Lily died, he experienced a depth of loneliness. To staffers, he was polite, even courtly, and also the quintessential Sabra, with a side of toughness. Sharon is seen eating several breakfasts (with subsequent guests and always with gusto), insisting on white tablecloths and gleaming cutlery when he’d dine in his office. Landau says that he lavished hospitality on all guests, including reporters and editors, and urged them to eat.

Taking to heart his father’s advice to be a man of the soil and a man of culture, Sharon was very interested in music and attended concerts regularly with Lily and also hosted musicians at his ranch. 

It’s impossible to read this 600-plus page book and not wonder “What if?” What if Sharon had been in Jerusalem instead of on the ranch when he had the stroke and was able to get to the hospital quicker? What if he was able to continue in his role as Israel’s prime minister?

When urged to consider the question, Landau believes that Sharon would have continued the policy of unilateral disengagement. He also feels strongly that if Sharon were still the prime minister, the disengagement in Gaza would not have led as quickly to a Hamas takeover. When he thinks about Sharon’s legacy, he makes the case that much of what Secretary of State John Kerry is proposing these days grows out of the ideas Sharon developed at the end of his days.

“That this is the basis of peacemaking — we call it peacemaking but there’s no peace yet — is a relevant and still hopeful legacy of Sharon.” 

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