Portraits for posterity

Three new Sharon biographies paint very different images of the man, the soldier and the politician.

October 26, 2006 11:14
sharon fam pix 88 298

sharon fam pix 88 298. (photo credit: GPO)


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Three new Ariel Sharon biographies paint very different images of the man, the soldier and the politician. But a nostalgic longing for the lost leader permeates much of the writing. So far, the prime minister's biographies are serving him well. It was not unusual for Ariel Sharon to call at 1:30 in the morning. He knew that fellow night-owl Uri Dan was also awake at that hour. In 1999, as Sharon struggled to rebuild the Likud following the defeat of Binyamin Netanyahu, he needed to vent to his trusted longtime friend. Often the topic was his enemies in the Likud. "Uri, you don't know how much they hate me in my party," Sharon would complain to Dan. Usually, when the phone rang, Dan would be in the kitchen "preparing coffee and smoking like a chimney, or just lying on the couch reading." In recalling the tense late-night conversations for The Jerusalem Post while sitting in a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant last week, Dan mimicked his friend's voice and then his own resigned response. "I would say to him, 'I know.'" "He would say, 'You do not know.'" "I'd say, 'I know how much they hate you and not just there [in the Likud].'" After going back and forth on this point, Dan, who had believed since the 1970s that Sharon would one day become prime minister, would state: "Remember one thing: The day the Jews choose you, everything you did from age 17 until today will be nothing compared to what you will still need to do." According to Dan, Sharon didn't believe he'd ever become prime minister. "He'd even say he didn't believe me. Then he'd say, 'Fine, I'm going to bed.'" Ever since 1983, when Sharon resigned his position as defense minister following the public backlash in the aftermath of the first war in Lebanon, he had been seen as a failed and finished politician. With the conclusions of the Kahan Commission (that held him indirectly responsible for the massacre of at least 700 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps), most people were certain Sharon would never again hold a top leadership position. But Dan, his comrade - some say propagandist - never lost faith. The 71-year-old columnist for The Jerusalem Post and journalist for The New York Post has lived long enough to feel vindicated. Those final years in the highest office dwarfed the ups and downs of Sharon's earlier years. This fall, three new English-language biographies outline the way Sharon's time as prime minister shaped his image. The books - Ariel Sharon: A Life by Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom; Sharon: A life in Times of Turmoil by former Israeli ambassador Freddy Eytan; and Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait by Uri Dan - define his place both in the Israeli and international arenas and detail his legacy. In placing Sharon on a par with other legendary Israeli leaders such as the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the authors present an image of Sharon as statesman; an image that flies in the face of his earlier depictions as "murderer" and "dictator." AMIR DAN, a media strategist in the firm of Rimon Cohen, says that in portraying Sharon positively, the authors are providing the public with the hero it wants to see. That positive image has as much to do with his actions while in office as it does with the drama of an illness that took him out of the political arena at the height of his popularity. Last January, it had been widely assumed that Sharon would secure the prime ministerial office for the third time in the upcoming March elections. "His sudden absence left people with a feeling of incompletion," says Dan. The vacuum was quickly filled with nostalgic feelings and heroic images. "Sometimes, when a central figure is taken out of the spotlight, we tend to idealize him. We forget the controversies and emphasize his positive characteristics to the extent that we see him as a father figure. A similar thing happened with Rabin." During his political career, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was heavily criticized and demonized. After his assassination in 1994, he was immortalized as a great leader and a symbol of peace, says Dan. In the same vein, the public is less open to hearing about Sharon's negative traits or dubious actions since his physical downfall. Speaking as a media strategist Dan says, "In truth, there is no connection between the true nature of the public figure and the image. The image is usually connected to one characteristic: for example, [MK Avigdor] Lieberman as a bully, [Dan] Meridor as a nerd... "It is true that a person's image cannot be sold like a product, because in any case, a person talks and offers his opinions. But like a product, the image can be boiled down to simple, digestible characteristics. "That's the power of satirical programs like Eretz Nehederet. They can easily make a caricature of a personality's most obvious characteristic and the public laughs - because the person is really like that to a certain extent." Last January, when he was a clear favorite in polls leading up to the March elections Sharon was regarded positively, and this became frozen in the minds of the Israeli public. "All people make mistakes, therefore it is natural that had Sharon continued in his political career, he [too] would have made mistakes. But Sharon's sudden departure from political life prevented him from doing so and the idealized version lives on." It is therefore unsurprising, says Dan, that books are currently being published that portray Sharon in a more positive light. "If they had been published two years ago, it might have been a different depiction." Lior Chorev, who worked with Sharon as a strategic consultant for Arad Communications, gives a different spin. According to Chorev, the time Sharon spent in the public eye as prime minister allowed for his true, complex character to emerge. It gave the public time to understand him and to appreciate the many layers of his personality. After his wife Lily passed away in March 2000 and he became prime minister in 2001, he was less defensive with the press and exposed his more human side. It already broke down some of the earlier, more negative theories about him, says Chorev. The Israeli people were able to see, for example, the role his family played in his life. Just three years ago he spoke publicly for the first time about the accidental death in 1967 of his son Gur at the age of 11. Once Sharon became prime minister, says Chorev, the yardstick by which he was measured changed. Given the timing of when he left office, January 2005, he will be judged on three historical topics: "the security fence, disengagement and the fight against terror," says Chorev. Chorev argues that it's still too early to write Sharon's biography from a historical perspective because time has yet to reveal the impact of Sharon's actions. "The world is relative, so he will not just be judged by his actions but also by those of his successors," says Chorev. But already it's clear that Sharon's departure from office heralded a new era in Israeli politics, says Chorev. Sharon is probably the last prime minister alive who fought in the War of Independence and lived the history of the state from the first day.

Ariel Sharon: A Life

It is precisely Sharon's historic stature that grabbed the attention of Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom back in 2001. They noted that no biography had been written about Sharon that explored his political rise since his resignation from the Defense Ministry in 1983. "The idea was not just to tell the story but to understand the key to Sharon. Why is he so controversial? Why did the man who was the most hated in the Arab world and the most hated in Israel end up as one of its most popular politicians?" asks Hefez. The lack of a comprehensive book seemed strange to the authors, given that already in 2001, they believed Sharon was one of the four most beloved leaders in the country - alongside former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Ariel Sharon: A Life, which was published in Hebrew in 2005 and by Random House at the beginning of October, is both Hefez's and his assistant Bloom's first book. (Hefez works as the editor of Yediot Aharonot's Friday magazine Seven Days.) As reporters and editors, the pair wanted to do a longer body of work that would explain to the younger generation and new immigrants something about Israel's history. They paid little attention to the political pundits who at the time predicted that Sharon's tenure in office would be brief. As a personality Sharon was compelling, irrespective of the length of time he actually spent as prime minister. When Sharon gave a watershed speech in September 2001 at the Latrun amphitheater, they started to understand just how interesting the story could become. At the time, Sharon was considered a right-wing politician. He led and had founded the Likud party, which rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. At Latrun, he told the group of teachers gathered there: "Israel wants to give the Palestinians what no one else ever has: the opportunity to establish a state of their own." With those words he rejected the tenets of his party while standing at the spot where he himself had almost died in battle during the War of Independence in 1948. "That was the turning point. You had to understand that he was going somewhere," says Hefez, who began the book exactly at this crossroad. "We believe that one of the central reasons he did it was because he was 73. He said to himself, 'I do not trust [former prime minister Ehud] Barak and [his Likud rival and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu] Bibi. I am the last one left, the one who can do this,'" said Hefez. In their book, Hefez and Bloom date the shift to a 1979 visit to Egypt in which Sharon visited the temple of Abu Simbel. Looking at the hieroglyphics carved into the shrine Sharon asked the assistant who was with him, Eli Landau, "What do you think, will they write something like that about me?" "Depends what you do, Arik," Landau replied. HEFEZ AND BLOOM did not develop a personal relationship with Sharon through the writing and researching of Ariel Sharon: A Life nor did they have one prior to the conception of the book. But the fact that they never sat down with Sharon one-on-one didn't stop them from feeling as if they knew him. "It's easy to [feel like you] know Ariel Sharon without [really] knowing him. Everywhere you go, you meet people who knew him," said Hefez. "There was no dearth of material," said Hefez. Initially they thought they would talk with Sharon for the book. They made overtures to his son, Omri, and to Sharon's staff, but they balked when they understood that conditions would be attached to the many hours of needed conversations, said Hefez. Fearing they would not be free to write everything they wanted to, they decided to speak with everyone bar the prime minister and his two sons. There were, says Hefez, "hundreds of people to interview." HEFEZ VIEWS the work as a textbook on the life of Sharon. The authors shy away from none of the controversial elements of his story save for those which they felt descended into unimportant gossip of no overwhelming historical interest. That was particularly true of a number of personal stories that involved people who had died and therefore could not dispute their veracity, says Hefez. Whether discussing the corruption charges against Sharon when he was prime minister or his stormy relationship with his superiors in the army, they shy away from taking sides and instead aim to present a balanced argument. They hold back little when talking about Sharon's political manipulations and contentious relationships with his rivals: Begin, Netanyahu and former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Hefez and Bloom remain the only authors to date to provide detailed accounts of Sharon's rise through the ranks of the Likud and into the office of prime minister. Among the many moments described in the book is the famous showdown between Shamir and Sharon in February 1990 at the Likud Central Committee meeting known as the "night of the microphones." Predicting that he would need to shut Shamir down at some critical juncture in the evening, he instructed his assistant Uri Shani to bring a wire cutter. According to the book, "Shani told Sharon that he could control the volume of Shamir's microphone with the dials at his fingertips, but Sharon insisted, 'Bring the cutter!'" At the critical moment when Shamir called out, "Who supports me?" Shani cut the cord. Sharon's volatile relationship with Peres is also charted. Among others things, the authors contend that it was Sharon in 2000 who helped swing the Knesset vote against Peres for the presidency and in favor of Moshe Katsav (Likud) as an early bid to show that the Right could overtake the Left to regain the government. According to the book, "An aide of Katsav's spent the tense minutes before the vote in the Knesset searching for Sharon. After combing the halls he found him in the cafeteria, hunched over a bowl of soup. "Sharon assured him that everything had been taken care of. When he had finished eating, he walked into the general assembly hall, sat down in his seat, and smiled at Peres. After Katsav emerged victorious, Sharon said, 'This is proof that with a unified nationalist camp we could switch the government.'" But five years later when Peres lost his bid for chairmanship of the Labor party, Sharon threw him a political lifeline by inviting him to join his new centrist party, Kadima. According to the book, when asked by reporters if he wasn't worried that Peres would drag him to the left, Sharon laughed. "Can you see Shimon dragging me?" The authors continued following Sharon through to the formation of Kadima. According to the book, Sharon was on the fence until the last minute. In the end, he concluded that he could not hold on to the reigns of power within the Likud at the price of making decisions for the nation. THE 773-PAGE manuscript was first published in Hebrew in 2005 under the title The Shepherd: The Life Story of Ariel Sharon by the Miskal - Yediot Aharonot Books and Chemed Books that is attached to their paper. Hefez and Bloom worked on the book in their spare time, mostly on weekends or after hours. The year-and-a-half they initially estimated it would take them turned into four. By then they were only two months away from Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, so they waited and cut the Hebrew edition at that point. They made mention of his anticipated upcoming leadership battle with Netanyahu. In releasing their book in English at the start of October they cut it down from 175,000 words to 160,000. Some things were added, among them the details of Sharon's decision to leave the Likud, the formation of his new political party Kadima and a description of the first stroke on December 18 and the more serious one on January 4, from which he has yet to recover. Hefez said that he actually prefers the 485-page English version published by Random House. "We think it's a better book," said Hefez, sitting in a caf in Ra'anana just before heading out for a US book tour. But that doesn't mean he believes that their work is completed. They are now working on an updated Hebrew version, but as yet they have no publication date. While in New York they hope to interview Sharon's estranged sister Dita who has lived most of her adult life in the US, for the last 12 years as a recluse. Even as they acquire new information, Sharon's story continues to change. With the former prime minister still in a coma, the final chapter of his life remains open; and the rapidly shifting situation in the region - including the war in Lebanon last summer - means that the impact of his decisions on the future of the state is still unclear. Whatever the outcome is, says Hefez, "We feel that we fulfilled a certain historical mission and that we wrote another chapter of Zionist history." Read the book review

Ariel Sharon: A Life in Times of Turmoil

Unlike Hefez and Bloom, Freddy Eytan makes no pretense of writing a comprehensive biography. What intrigues Eytan, a former ambassador to Mauritania and The Jerusalem Post's former French correspondent, is not the sum total of his life but the shift Sharon made from a warrior and a politician into a statesman. Ariel Sharon: A Life in Times of Turmoil, published by Studio 9 in September in French and English, is Eytan's 11th book. He has written a biography of Peres and is in the middle of writing a book about the statesmen of Israel from the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and through to Sharon. In his book on Sharon he describes his first meeting with Sharon in 1965: "I was a young soldier in the IDF. He was then a paratrooper colonel and his very presence in the military bases gave everyone the jitters." Sitting in his basement office of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Eytan says that at the time Sharon struck him as different from the other officers. "He was very charismatic. He had extraordinary courage. He gave you the feeling he would advance." Later in the 1960s, when he served with General David Elazar, he was able to observe how the senior military men always kept Sharon "in their line of fire." Since then, wrote Eytan, "I have made it my business to closely follow the spellbinding career of the enfant terrible of Tzahal." While he may be following his tracks for a while, the idea of a biography only came to him in 1998 when Sharon, then foreign minister, agreed to accompany then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the Wye Plantation in the US to negotiate with the Palestinians. Given Sharon's strong feelings against the Palestinian Authority chairman, Yasser Arafat, and his belief that giving up land harmed Israel's security interests, the fact that he agreed to the trip spoke of a diplomatic quality that Eytan had not known Sharon to possess. "He was no longer a bulldozer. He had become a diplomat. I saw someone else. I looked at him and saw a person who was more pragmatic and more philosophical in life," says Eytan. It is this quality that he explores in depth in his 263-page book, albeit without a direct interview with Sharon. Like Hefez and Bloom, Eytan chalks disengagement up to Sharon's quest to secure his place in history and to his shifting understanding of the region. "For his part, Sharon had come to the unhappy conclusion that he had long fooled himself - and others - with the dream of holding on to the occupied land forever," writes Eytan. Finally, the creation of safe, recognized, defensible and definitive borders was very important for Sharon. Eytan's book proffers no judgment of Sharon, but in person he is critical. Disengagement, he says, was a mistake. Still, there were other diplomatic reasons to push forward with the plan. The positive significance of Oslo and disengagement might not be in their advancement of the peace process but in that they lead to periods of diplomatic calm, successful even if superficial. IN THE book, Sharon draws the line at the question of dividing Jerusalem. He called reports that he would do so "grotesque fabrications. It's ridiculous. Never, ever will I ever sign an agreement that divides the eternal capital of the Jewish people. And my adversaries know this perfectly well," Sharon said. "He [Sharon] made mistakes but we could not fail to respect him because of his contribution to our nation," says Eytan. Eytan details the days before Sharon's January 5 stroke. He describes how Sharon joked with now Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who, as far as they knew, was only temporarily taking over for him during a minor surgical procedure set for January 6. "I'm putting you in charge of the country for only three hours. Be wise and patient and don't take any decisions or change the furniture around," Sharon told Olmert. Instead Olmert was called to fill in for him already the night before when it became clear how serious his stroke was. The book ends with Olmert taking office in April 2005. "The Sharon era was passing, and the Olmert era beginning," writes Eytan. To the Post, Eytan added that it was hard for him to speak of Sharon in the past tense. The Lebanon War is the first time in the history of the state that Sharon was not at the helm when it came to decision-making regarding fatal issues, says Eytan. He added that his absence was felt. "In times of turmoil, we need a leader. Today we are orphaned and seeking a leader." Read the book review

Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait

In writing his book, Uri Dan was not moved by a thesis or need to tell an objective story. His focus was not political or diplomatic, but rather personal. If anything he is proud of the subjective role he has played and continues to play in Sharon's life as his defender in print. Watching the first winter rain from a Tel Aviv cafe last week, Dan recalled how he was so moved after Sharon, then a military commander, crossed the Suez Canal and changed the tide of the Yom Kippur war. At this point Dan vowed that he would do whatever he could to help throughout the rest of their lives. "You were not there to see him when everything was burning in the Suez Canal," said Dan. "I helped him because I had seen him at crucial moments, saving Jews." Dan met Sharon in 1954 when he was 19 years old. He was Dan's type, so to speak: As a child growing up in Tel Aviv, Dan loved to read history and books about Jewish heroes. As a military journalist for the weekly IDF paper Bamahane he sought permission to head into battle with him. Standing in the military barrack in the middle of the night all those years ago, Dan instinctively felt as if he was seeing in the flesh a reproduction of those mythic characters. "I had read about him already. Then I see him operate in the battlefield: the way he speaks, the way he moves, the way he treats people and the way people treat him. I said to myself I do not know this man but I have read about him in one of those books that I like so much," said Dan. But not everyone had the same understanding of Sharon's heroism. Throughout Sharon's life his successes often earned him jealous slurs instead of accolades. "He was so viciously demonized that I decided that in my book I will mostly salute him for so many things, the way he did it, for so many things he never got credit for," said Dan. "His rivals and enemies invented mistakes that never existed." He hoped, he said, that "people will read about him and will see him differently. I wanted to tell the human story, how a man like this fights against all odds." The book, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait, published by Palgrave Macmillan at the end of October, reads less like a straight narrative and more like a series of snapshots of different moments that Dan and Sharon experienced together. Dan has written 10 other books, including two on the former prime minister: Sharon's Bridgehead, about his crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, and Blood Libel, about his libel suit against Time Magazine in the 1980s. As a journalist Dan said that throughout their 52-year friendship he was always taking notes, even though he did not initially think it would amount to a book. Within 13 years of meeting Sharon that instinct turned into an imperative. Watching Sharon survive the death of his 11-year old son Gur, Dan understood that his friend was someone whom he would likely be writing about, above and beyond the stories that he covered as a journalist. He told himself that from now on, "Everything concerning Sharon would be marked down. I have thousands of pages. 98 percent of them I have not published." Published in their entirety they would represent an encyclopedia of a Jewish hero, he said. "I have written only the highlights." He said he hoped it is enough to shed light on Sharon's courage and the high caliber of his character. The 281-page manuscript (due out in French and English this week and in Hebrew next month) only hints at the information that must be scribbled in Dan's notebooks. Even so, said Dan, there are still things he does not know. "He was a man of secrets all his life," said Dan. "Everyone thought they knew him and they didn't know anything," said Dan. Included in the book is a letter that came by messenger to Dan's home on the day that he and Sharon took off for a trip to the United Nations in New York last September. His wife caught him before the flight took off and read it out loud to him. When Sharon boarded the plane, Dan asked him how he had time to write a letter between preparing for a major diplomatic speech and his battle within the Likud against Binyamin Netanyahu. He mimicked Sharon's voice as he quoted the answer: "For true friendship there is always time." Dan reads the critical line from the letter, "You are a true friend who has always been there." According to the author, many people claim they are Sharon's friend, but there are few whom Sharon labeled as his friend. IN SPITE of his admiration for Sharon, Dan believed that Sharon made three mistakes; the withdrawal from Yamit in 1981, the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and his departure from the Likud party. "I criticized him openly," said Dan. At one point it was reported back to him that Sharon shut off the television in anger after hearing him. Still, he said, it is premature to judge Sharon. "What looks like a mistake now, could in 10 or 20 years be one of the most important decisions a leader ever took in this country," said Dan. Dan began writing this book after Sharon's famous September 2005 speech to the United Nations. Dan had heard a story the following month of how Sharon had rejected an offer from a major publishing house in the United States to have a well-known author write his biography. Sharon said it was too early, with the timing looking rather like he had finished his career rather than embarking on a third prime-ministerial term. Then he said that the only person who would write his biography was Uri Dan. Sharon didn't relate this story to Dan, it was told to him by others. But it explained a statement Sharon had made around that time to Dan: that at some point, when he retired from politics, the two men should spend six months on his farm writing the complete story of his life. In the stark interim since his friend's sudden illness, Dan did the one remaining thing he could do: write the story of Sharon's life. He quickly pushed to finish the book for which he has been collecting notes as a journalist for almost 40 years. It was one, he said, he thought would have many more chapters. On a Sunday in October, a year after he started his work, Dan held the hardbound copy of the book for the first time and rifled through the pages in disbelief. "I would have died from sorrow if I had not written this book," said Dan. "I would be so happy if I could bring him the book and say, 'Even in this I didn't disappoint you.'" Read the book review

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