Sharon's ideological metamorphosis

According to David Landau's new biography, the two-state battle is not yet over, and Sharon could yet emerge the winner.

Ariel Sharon meets with his advisers at his Jerusalem residence, December 21, 2005. (photo credit: ISRAEL OUT REUTERS/Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Ariel Sharon meets with his advisers at his Jerusalem residence, December 21, 2005.
(photo credit: ISRAEL OUT REUTERS/Avi Ohayon/GPO)

AS US Vice President Joe Biden said in his moving eulogy, Ariel Sharon’s life mirrored the trajectory of Israel’s. David Landau’s colorful, insightful and deftly written biography does justice to the historic sweep.

A former editor-in-chief of the Hebrew daily Haaretz, Landau brings considerable analytic gifts to bear in explaining the contradictions and vicissitudes of the complex man who evolved from brilliantly unorthodox but unruly soldier, radiating controversy, recalcitrance and naked aggression, to become Israel’s sober and grandfatherly 11th prime minister, and who, in so doing, morphed from the bête noire of Landau’s own center-left milieu to the standard bearer they believed would have the strength to bring peace.
Sharon first came to national prominence in the fight against Palestinian fedayeen terror in the early 1950s. With morale and operational capacity in the IDF low, he was handpicked to form a special commando unit, the legendary 101, which carried out a string of daring but disproportionate reprisal raids designed to deter. Landau argues that although Sharon was regularly berated by his superiors, including then prime minister David Ben-Gurion, for operational excesses including high civilian casualties, he was merely carrying out their policy of deterrence through heavy reprisal. Landau makes much the same argument for Sharon’s frenetic settlement building under prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and, to a large extent, his excesses under Begin in the 1982 Lebanon War.
Sharon’s military career was held back after he again exceeded orders during the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Instructed not to engage the Egyptian enemy holed up in the Mitla Pass in Sinai, Sharon, now commander of the enlarged paratroop brigade, sent in a significantly beefed up “reconnaissance patrol.” The force, led by Mordechai (Motta) Gur, a future IDF chief of staff who became an implacable foe, ran into a devastating ambush. Thirty-eight Israeli soldiers were killed and 120 wounded in an action that the IDF senior command felt should never have taken place.
For the next several years, chiefs of staff Haim Laskov and Zvi Tzur would not hear of Sharon getting a field command. According to Landau, however, the interim period had a positive impact on Sharon’s contribution in the 1967 Six Day War. As head of training he helped inculcate the 101 fighting methods and must-win ethos in the IDF as a whole, and in the war he put the tank warfare tactics gleaned at Camberley Staff College in the UK to brilliant effect in the decisive desert battles he commanded, opening up “the gateway to Sinai.”
For Sharon the early 1970s were something of a throwback to the 1950s. As head of Southern Command he used unorthodox but highly effective methods to crush Palestinian terror in Gaza. Again he was blamed for going too far.
According to Landau, in an action hushed up at the time and still largely under wraps, at least 40 Beduin, including women, children and old people, died in a forced march when summarily expelled from their desert encampment in freezing wintry conditions.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War highlighted Sharon’s idiosyncratic brand of brilliance, daring and paranoia. After locating the precise point between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies where the IDF could knife through them to cross the Suez Canal and mount the stunning counter-attack that ultimately turned the tide, he was convinced that the top brass, including chief of staff David Elazar and his predecessor Haim Bar-Lev, were plotting to have his rival General Avraham (Bren) Adan make the crossing and steal his thunder.
In the end it was Sharon, with the iconic white bandage around his head, who smashed through to the Egyptian side of the waterway and emerged unassailable war-hero in the public mind. “In a way,” Landau writes, “that makes the war of the generals that followed all the more pointless and perverse. If, as Sharon and his friends say, Bar-Lev was trying to rob him of the glory, he failed. If, as Sharon’s many enemies say, Sharon was obsessively and selfishly pursuing the glory… he didn’t need to. He’d got it already.”
Far more controversial and long-lasting was Sharon’s role as the great settlement builder. In the scramble for the West Bank, he was quickest off the mark, transferring IDF training bases there in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War. After the Likud came to power in 1977 under Menachem Begin, Sharon, as agriculture minister and chairman of the ministerial settlement committee, led the “wink-anda-nod” settlement drive in partnership with Gush Emunim, the zealous national religious settlement movement.
“Happily for Sharon [and for the settlers], inconsistency and disingenuousness were the very characteristics with which Sharon’s personality was bountifully endowed,” Landau observes. As housing minister under Yitzhak Shamir in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sharon accelerated construction in the settlements, drawing American ire. Although, as Landau says, he was only executing Shamir’s policy, Sharon took most of the flak in Washington, where on the back of the 1982 Lebanon War he had become persona non grata. “Like his settlement policy… Ariel Sharon was an obstacle to peace,” US secretary of state at the time, James Baker, later wrote.
Sharon was also the great builder for the huge wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. But as Landau points out, he also used the construction boom to provide jobs for unqualified Likud cronies – fly-by-night contractors and building inspectors – as he built up his camp in the party.
THE 1982 Lebanon War revealed the wide, overly ambitious and patently unrealistic sweep of Sharon’s strategic thinking at the time. In invading Lebanon, he believed Israel would achieve the following domino-like goals: A peace pact with Lebanon’s Christians who would rule the country as Israel’s allies, coupled with destruction of the PLO’s terrorist infrastructure and weakening of Syrian influence, triggering a Palestinian exodus from Lebanon through Syria to Jordan; Palestinian overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy making Jordan Palestine in line with Sharon’s “Jordan is Palestine” ideology and enabling Israel to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians in which it would retain most of the West Bank.
What Landau dubs “Sharon’s strategic bombast” went even further. In September 1981, with maps unfurled, he had explained to an aghast White House how Israel could be of use to the US militarily as far as Turkey, Iran and the Gulf States; later he briefed his American counterpart Caspar Weinberger on how Israel could help counter Libyan subversion and Soviet influence in Africa.
“Drunk with his own success (at having become defense minister) and more arrogant than ever, he seemed to lose touch with his own place and his country’s place in the reality of world affairs,” Landau maintains.
Did he mislead Begin on the war aims in Lebanon as his many critics charge? Landau presents evidence that suggests he did not.
Could he have prevented the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalange forces, for which he was ultimately forced to resign? Undoubtedly, according to Landau, especially in light of a specific warning in the Cabinet from his colleague David Levy as to what might happen if the Phalangists were allowed into the camps in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of their leader Bashir Gemayel.
For his part, Sharon maintained he had been betrayed in Lebanon. The Zionist left, he charged, had “turned victory into defeat.”
Now he would base his political comeback on that claimed victimhood, holding onto a government post no matter how menial, and building his camp in the Likud.
For the next two decades Sharon functioned mainly as spoiler. He was one of the “constraints” ministers in Yitzhak Shamir’s governments and vociferously opposed the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. His opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accord was far more trenchant.
The last speaker at the infamous Zion Square balcony rally in Jerusalem a month before Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, he accused the Rabin government of “collaboration” with Palestinian terror. Earlier he had compared Rabin to Marshal Petain, the French general who collaborated with the Nazis. According to Landau, although he said terrible things in public, virtually accusing Rabin of treachery, Sharon retained his close personal friendship with the peacemaking prime minister and didn’t really understand the depth and vehemence of national religious settler fanaticism that led to the assassination.
When he succeeded Benjamin Netanyahu as Likud chairman in 1999, Sharon, then 71, was universally perceived as a stop-gap leader, well past his political prime. Immediately, though, his talented PR team went about rebranding him from “swashbuckling extremist” with a chip on his shoulder to mellow, seasoned leader, father of the nation. “Only Sharon will bring peace” was the astounding slogan they chose in the run-up to the February 2001 election in which Sharon defeated Labor’s Ehud Barak by a margin of almost 25 percent.

Although his first priority was to deal with the raging Palestinian intifada, which he did through the recapture of major West Bank towns in Operation Defensive Shield in MarchApril 2002, Sharon’s rebranding coincided with a genuine ideological metamorphosis.

From chief proponent of “Jordan is Palestine,” he had moved on to the notion of Palestinian cantons in the West Bank, before becoming, as prime minister, a powerful advocate of a twostate solution, Israel and Palestine, achieved through sweeping unilateral Israeli moves.
THE EXTENT of Sharon’s conversion was astonishing. As prime minister, he made all the classic left-wing moral, demographic and long-term survival arguments. As early as May 2003, he shocked the Likud Knesset faction by deliberately using the “occupation” word, where traditional Likud nomenclature had referred to the West Bank and Gaza as “liberated” territories. “I also happen to think that the idea that we can continue to hold three and a half million Palestinians under occupation – you can bridle at the word but that’s what it is, occupation – that idea is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, bad for our economy,” he declared. A year and a half later he underlined his total break with his former Gush Emunim allies, accusing them of having “developed a certain messiah complex.”
The seed for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza had been planted by then Labor opposition leader Amram Mitzna. Sharon also feared that if Israel failed to take the initiative it would come under increasing international pressure to make moves not necessarily in its best interests. The unilateralist strategy he adopted was twofold: disengagement from Gaza coupled with a security fence in the West Bank that would curb Palestinian terror but also help establish a two-state reality on the ground.
According to Landau, the security fence could prove historically as significant as the Gaza withdrawal, both unilateral way stations on the road towards a two-state solution.
Landau’s book highlights Sharon’s strong leadership throughout the long disengagement saga. Despite powerful party opposition, a lost party referendum and a threatened Netanyahu-led party putsch, Sharon remained cool and unmoved. He carried out the disengagement plan to the letter before breaking away from Likud to form a new party, Kadima, for the next phase. He also secured the April 2004 letter from US president George W. Bush intimating that large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank could be included on the Israeli side of the border as part of eventual land swaps with the Palestinians.
But there were also lacunae in Sharon’s actions. In Landau’s view, he could have decided on a larger disengagement, including more of the West Bank; he could have coordinated security during and after the withdrawal with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas; he could have used his influence to have the Palestinian elections that brought Hamas to power postponed; and he could have reacted more decisively to initial Palestinian rocketing after the Israeli pullout.
Sharon’s strategic achievement in withdrawing from Gaza was also tarnished by the ostensible sleaze for which he and his sons were under investigation, with the settler right coining the slogan that the depth of disengagement was equal to the depth of police investigation – in other words, that Sharon was pulling out of Gaza against Israel’s best interests in a desperate attempt to curry favor with the supposedly left-wing-dominated press and state prosecution.
The upshot of all this was that although Sharon won the disengagement war, the settlers won the post-disengagement narrative. They claimed he had promised security but had made security worse – which was not strictly true.
Worse, the main point of the disengagement, helping to create a two-state reality to save the Zionist enterprise, was widely overlooked.
What if Sharon had been able to continue as prime minister? Would he have followed up the Gaza disengagement with further withdrawals from the West Bank? Landau suggests that that was firmly on the agenda, noting that Sharon had set up a team under Foreign Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovitz to list all the problems that would have to be tackled in the context of an overarching withdrawal plan.
Indeed, in Landau’s view, the two-state battle is not yet over, and Sharon could yet emerge the winner. “Despite the frustrating and heartbreaking regression in peace prospects in the years since the Gaza disengagement, the impact of his last, audacious act may yet prove irreversible. And if it does, Zionism will have been saved,” Landau concludes.