Understanding Arik

Those seeking more insight into some of the more intriguing elements of Ariel Sharon's personal and public life are unlikely to find it in this biography by his son Gilad.

Ariel Sharon ATV 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ariel Sharon ATV 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There could be nothing more knowing, more intimate and less objective than a son’s biography of his father. The anticipation that surrounds the publication this week of Gilad Sharon’s 609-page biography of his father, Ariel Sharon, comes from the hope that it would reveal a personal portrait of one of Israel’s most colorful, compelling and complex leaders.
To that end, the opening pages of the book Sharon: The Life of a Leader published by HarperCollins are not disappointing.
The first chapter shows a photograph of Sharon – the 11th prime minister – as a father in August 1967 in Sinai with his oldest son, Gur. Sharon, wearing an army uniform and black boots, has his arm across his son’s shoulders in a half hug as the 10- year-old boy, in sandals and shorts, walks with him. It was taken just weeks before Gur’s death. The boy accidentally shot himself as he played with an antique gun, not knowing that the weapon was loaded.
“On the eve of Rosh Hashana, 1967, when I was 11 months old, my older brother Gur was killed in an accident with a gun. He was almost eleven and it was without a doubt the event that most affected, me my family and our home,” writes Gilad as the opening line of the book. “Deep, down inside, in my core, there is a seed of sadness and it is rooted in that event,” he says.
But unfortunately, after a strong start, the book veers away from the personal and into the more known history of Sharon’s military and political path to the office of prime minister in 2001. At times it bogs the reader down with details of general history and excessively long descriptions of diplomatic dialogue, particularly the inclusion of historic speeches that Sharon delivered.
Those seeking more depth and understanding of some of the more intriguing and controversial elements of Sharon’s personal and public life are unlikely to find them in this book.
Gilad mentions only briefly the death of his aunt and his father’s first wife, Margalit, in 1962. His description of the courtship between his father and Margalit’s sister Lily in the year that followed is equally brief.
“The family nearly crumbled” after Margalit’s death, writes Gilad. “Then my mother stepped in, for Gur. ‘In the beginning I did not love him,’ my mother said of my father. It took time. At first they were just partners in a joint project, then they became friends, then love grew,” writes Gilad, the younger of Lily’s two sons.
With respect to his public life, Gilad describes his father as a brave military commander and a savvy political leader who made more knowledgeable and intelligent choices than those around him.
In the book’s dedication, Gilad writes of his father, “You are the hero of this book, the hero of our lives.”
At each point, he defends some of the more controversial moments of his father’s checkered journey to the top.
As a military commander Sharon won accolades for – among other things – reaching the Suez Canal in the Six Day War and crossing it in the Yom Kippur War, an event to which the turning the tide in Israel’s favor was attributed. A 1973 photogaph from the war with an iconic shot of Sharon wearing a bloodied white bandage around his head is included in the book. Sharon, however, was also sharply critized for some of his exploits, which left high casualty counts.
In 1953, for example, as the head of special IDF Unit 101, Sharon led a retaliatory cross-border military raid against the Jordanian village of Kibya, in which 42 homes were blown up and 69 people were killed, including women, children and seniors. Despite this, Gilad describes the care taken by the unit to ensure that no one was in the houses and that at one point a soldier ran inside to save a little girl.
The raid’s success, writes Gilad, “was linked to a tragedy that for years has been used against Israel and my father. The loss of the civilian lives disturbed and pained my father.”
Similarly, he says, in 1982 when his father was the defense minister, he had not known that Christian Phalangists in Lebanon had killed many Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla when the area was under IDF control.
At the time of the attack on the refugee camps, Sharon was in a cabinet meeting in which he told the ministers that Phalangists were in Lebanese neighborhoods and no one objected, writes Gilad. His father, he says, only heard of the incident from the chief of staff when he was back at his Negev farm.
Gilad says that relentless attacks against his father as a result were based on the public need for a victim both in Israel and abroad.
It was “Arab Christians who murdered Arab Muslims. The Jews self-flagellated themselves for this and the international community, which has shown little interest in slaughtered Jews, Armenians and Africans and in atrocities in other places around the world, now reveled in the spilt blood,” writes Gilad.
His father, he says, was naïve and did not understand the extent to which he would be sacrificed to fulfill this need. Gilad recalls that when the Kahan Commission of Inquiry was formed to look into the events, his father had said, “I have nothing to hide.”
The commission in 1983 found that his father bore “indirect responsibility” and recommended that Sharon be removed. Gilad writes that this was the only time in Israeli history that an official has been held indirectly accountable for the “heinous” act of another.
Of his father’s famous walk on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000, when he was Opposition leader and Likud head, Gilad writes that it was “an expression of my father’s opposition to Barak’s readiness to give the site up.”
He makes sure to mention that the Mitchell Report of 2001 came to the conclusion that Sharon’s Temple Mount visit did not spark the second intifada.
There is no mention in the book of the allegations of financial corruption against Sharon and his sons that plagued the last years of his premiership. Nor does he delve into Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud, the very party that he had founded, to form Kadima.
Most striking is the absence of any ideological transformation of Sharon from a strong right-wing politician known as the “father of the settlement movement” to a prime minister who carried out one of the most divisive operations in Israeli history, the destruction of 21 Gaza settlements and four in northern Samaria in 2005.
Already in the early 1980s, Gilad writes, his father envisioned a time when it might no longer be possible for Israel to remain in Gaza. His father also understood that not all the West Bank settlements would remain; therefore, he worked to obtain assurances from the US that Israel would retain the settlement blocs.
Still, according to the book, it was Gilad who first proposed the idea of disengaging from Gaza in 2003 at a meeting at his family’s dining-room table on their farm in the Negev.
“My father listened – it’s possible he said something like, ‘Interesting’ – and then he said, ‘Put it down on paper.’ That was the first time my father seriously considered the evacuation of the Israeli communities from Gaza,” writes Gilad.
The only hint in the book of any regret about disengagement on Sharon’s part comes from a small anecdote that Gilad mentions but never fully explains.
“Two or three days before the [disengagement] plan went into effect, the secretary of the prime minister’s office, Marit Danon, went into my father’s office. ‘I had a very bad dream last night,’ he told her. ‘I dreamed that I was hanging from a rope above a well and that the rope snapped,’” writes Gilad.
Whether accurate or inaccurate, however, by portraying Sharon as a man of consistent principles who made the correct decisions, Gilad robs the reader of the very element that most intrigues the public, which is Sharon’s image as a deeply flawed but much loved leader.
Those seeking to understand the deep contradiction between Sharon’s image as both a “brutal” warrior and a warm-hearted, personable political leader who knew how to control power would do better to read some earlier biographies, such as Ariel Sharon: A Life by Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom published in 2006. For a more intimate but telling portrait, one might read Sharon’s 1989 autobiography, Warrior, or the 2006 book written by his longtime friend and confidant Uri Dan, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait.
Still, for the Sharon enthusiast and the history buff who doesn’t mind making his way through well-known history, as well as the long listing of terror attacks, there are certainly interesting nuggets of personal and political information to be found in Gilad’s book. Included are some personal photographs, such as Sharon setting the table for a Passover Seder or sitting in his kitchen drinking coffee.
Also included is a picture of a small handwritten note passed to Sharon during a meeting in March 2002, which read, “Arik, there has been an attack in Jerusalem, scores of wounded.” The words “Suicide bomber, Café Moment,” were encircled.
There is also a cute anecdote in which former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak complained that his minister of intelligence Omar Suleiman had been fed only two hot dogs and a tomato when visiting Sharon. Mubarak also complained that Sharon would only hold a conversation with him that lasted only a minute and a half, Gilad writes.
“I sat next to my father in his bedroom on the farm when he teased Mubarak about the hot dogs and again later, in the conversation when he said, ‘Here I am holding the receiver with one hand and my watch with the other so as to ensure that more than a minute and a half has passed,’” writes Gilad.
He does not mince words when writing of some of his father’s political adversaries and colleagues in the Likud. He describes his father’s anger at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who, after winning the premiership for the first time in 1996, reneged on his promise to name Sharon to a top ministerial post.
“Yet another Netanyahu promise that he has no intention of fulfilling. Netanyahu summoned my father to a meeting in his office. Standing at the entrance to the room and putting an end to the shortest meeting in the history of the prime minister’s office, my father said to Netanyahu, ‘A liar you were and a liar you have remained,’” Gilad writes.
With regard to President Shimon Peres, Gilad says, “he was logical and efficient and a person one could work with,” but when it came to the Palestinians, “he lost all perspective.”
The Likud’s stunning success in the 2003 election Gilad chalks up to his father. “He carried on his back most of the Likud parliament members that were elected in 2003, many of them the same members who later made the running of his coalition difficult,” writes Gilad.
He takes credit for convincing his father to give Netanyahu the post of finance minister instead of foreign minister after the 2003 election.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, he writes, was given the position of vice premier only to appease him for not receiving the Finance Ministry post as promised. Making Olmert the vice premier was a mistake, writes Gilad, and there was never any intention of making him Sharon’s successor.
“I know that my father did not for a moment believe that Olmert should replace him or that he was worthy of the role, nor did he intend to allow that to happen. Moreover, he had no intention of bestowing that title on Olmert again after 2006,” writes Gilad.
He describes Olmert as “smug” and “arrogant.” Olmert, who replaced Sharon as head of the Kadima party and became prime minister in 2006, “assumed the office of prime minister without the necessary awe and reverence. Olmert is a shrewd individual, but his main problem in my opinion is that he preferred his own good over the country’s,” says Gilad.
The book ends with a brief description of the two strokes Sharon suffered while seeking reelection for a third term – the first in December 2005, and the second in January 2006.
Gilad recalls how on January 4 he went into his father’s hospital room. “He was speaking to the IDF chief of staff, instructing him to fire from navy ships in the event of rocket fire on Israel from Gaza. Even with his life in danger, he was still protecting the Jews; he knows no other way,” writes Gilad.
At the end of the book, Gilad returns to the personal stance of a son who loves his father and who maintains hope that even five years later he will recover.
“'If ever I don’t come to,’ he [Ariel Sharon] said to us once in jest, ‘all you have to do is let me smell a salami omelet and I’ll get right up.’ Anyone who thinks I didn’t bring that exact dish to my father in the hospital simply doesn’t know me,” writes Gilad.
He explains that since his father’s stroke, the farm has continued to prosper. “Everything is in order, set up, waiting for him, just like us, patiently and expectantly.”