Scratching the surface

December 20, 2002

Sharon: Israel's Warrior-Politician by Sigalit Zetouni, Anita Miller and Jordan Miller. Academy Chicago Publishiing. 613 pp. $22.75. The fundamental, insurmountable flaw in the new biography of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can be seen by merely glancing at the footnotes. Take, for instance, the chapter that deals with Sharon's election victory in 2001. There are 35 footnotes for this 10-page chapter. Seventeen of them cite The Jerusalem Post. The other entries quote the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Baltimore Sun, St. Louis Post- Dispatch, Boston Globe, Irish Times and even the Bergen County Evening Record. There is no reference to a Hebrew source. Equally glaring, and more damaging to the overall work, is the lack of a reference to a personal interview with, say, Sharon or someone close to him. There is no reference to minutes from a campaign- strategy session, nor a letter, nor a hand-scribbled memo. Not even an interview with Sharon confidant Uri Dan. In short, there is nothing that would give the reader a fuller picture of the election than what they could obtain from a newspaper's electronic archives. And therein lies the problem with this book, billed as the first English biography of Sharon, a biography that looks at Sharon's half-century career 'in a factual, comprehensive and balanced way, without any distracting psychobabble.' True, no 'psychobabble' here. Indeed, there is no attempt at all to get behind the news stories and determine what makes Sharon tick, how he makes decisions. Instead, what we have is a chronicle - newspaper style - of all the major news events Sharon has been a part of. The later events, accessible by Internet, are given more exhaustive detail than those that took place before the Internet was born. Which may explain why the first not- exactly-uneventful 60 years of Sharon's life merit only 170 pages, while the next 14 merit some 384. For Sharon's early years, the book relies on Sharon's own autobiography, and two earlier biographies. But if I'm not going to get any more insight about Sharon than I could get from those works, why wade through this one? For Sharon's later years, the book relies on newspaper article piled upon newspaper article, to the point of exhaustion. For instance, what do we gain from knowing that Sharon, on a visit to New York as prime minister, had a chance meeting with Michael Jackson? Or that, after he won the election in 2001, 'The Japanese foreign minister called to congratulate Sharon and expressed hope that he would work for a just and lasting negotiated peace.' This shouldn't merit mention in a news story, let alone in a biography. The book brings to mind a routine from the 1970s US comic team Cheech and Chong about a high-school student who returned to school from summer vacation, and when asked to read an essay on what he did over the summer, declared: 'The first day on my vacation, I woke up. Then I went downtown to look for a job. Then I hung out in front of the drugstore. The second day on my summer vacation, I woke up. Then I went downtown to look for a job. Then I hung out in front of the drugstore. The third day on my summer vacation, I woke up...' NOT THAT there aren't side benefits even from reading a bare chronicle of events. For one, it puts current events in perspective. It was entertaining being reminded, while Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu were in the midst of their primary campaign, how the tables turned. In 1996 it was Sharon waiting for a phone call from Netanyahu to get a key cabinet post. Now Netanyahu awaits the phone call. In 1998 it was Sharon nipping at Netanyahu's heels inside the Likud from the Right, now it is the other way around. In other instances, there was a sense of dejˆ vu. The book, for instance, mentions Sharon's realization that the policy of retaliation for terrorist raids he implemented in the 1950s never created true deterrence. 'It became crystal clear that no deterrence operation, no matter how large or successful, would achieve the goal of stopping terrorism,' he wrote in his autobiography, Warrior. 'If we wanted the Arab governments to face their responsibility, another route had to be found' - as it was, Sharon eventually concluded, in the 1956 Sinai campaign. Generally, there is some comfort in reading accounts of Israel's history and knowing that the various crises and wars have ended: the pre-state Arab riots, the fedayeen raids from the 1950s, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, even the Lebanon War. The authors of the current biography presume to bring us all the way up to Operation Defensive Shield. But when it comes to the current violence, they would have done everyone a service by waiting to see how this particular chapter plays out before writing about it. Then they could have attempted to give us some depth, some insight. As it stands, in trying to be up-to-date, they provide the reader with little more than a surface chronology of events with which most of us are depressingly all too familiar.The book resembles more of a grocery list than a narrative.