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Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon, by David Landau, Knopf, RRP$35, 656 pages
When Ariel Sharon died this month, his legacy seemed no more settled than it did in the wake of the stroke that felled the former prime minister at the peak of his career and sent him into an eight-year coma. How to find the right words for a man viewed in much of the world as a war criminal for the killing of Arab civilians by troops under his control, yet held in high regard by his countrymen as a brilliant military tactician – most notably in the near-disaster for Israel of the 1973 Yom Kippur war?
Sharon was both a master-builder of Israel’s settlements – among the biggest obstacles to any remaining hope of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians – and also a man who, in 2005, after a late-career shift to the peace camp, ordered troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip. By the end he was speaking of the need to end the “occupation” of Palestinian lands, a blunt and politically loaded word it is hard to imagine any Israeli rightwinger using today. What more, for better and worse, would he have done had he lived?
An eerily timely and expertly written biography has appeared that unpicks many of the controversies around Sharon’s record, and promises to become the definitive account of his career. David Landau’s Arik has an off-putting cover that shows the late leader at age 41, captured in heroic half-profile like a Caesar or Napoleon. But this is no panegyric. “Everyone knows you’re a superb military man,” Landau quotes Yitzak Rabin, then chief of staff, recounting a conversation with Sharon in 1964 as he promoted him to a commanding officer job. “Your trouble is, though, that people tend to believe you’re not a decent human being.”
In the author’s telling, Sharon emerges as a creature of pure ego, whose bold decisions on the battlefield were often made in defiance of his superiors, and sometimes with concerns for his own self-advancement trumping military concerns. The most telling part of this theme is a lengthy account of Sharon’s operation to breach the Suez Canal in 1973, a feat achieved amid bitter squabbling with fellow officers that, once successful, caused his division and a retinue of fawning journalists to dub him “Arik, king of Israel” – a sobriquet that was again making the rounds at his memorial this week.
“If Yom Kippur was Israel’s Pearl Harbor,” Landau writes, “Sharon was its MacArthur: arrogant, swashbuckling, manipulative, loved or hated, always controversial, master of self-promotion, contemptuous of his superiors.”
In reviewing Sharon’s military record, Landau documents, unflinchingly, the massacre of civilians at Qibya in 1953, then at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the 1982 Lebanon war. The latter atrocity blotted his career and is the incident for which he is remembered most bitterly and widely today.
But it is arguably Sharon’s defining role in the settlement enterprise, painstakingly documented here, that had a more profound impact on the Middle East. As an opposition backbencher in the mid-1970s, Sharon was an early enabler and – literally – protector of the settlers, at one point shielding the religious nationalist Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. “Don’t touch him,” he shouted, using his parliamentary immunity to shove soldiers away during a clash with the settler group Gush Emunim near Nablus. “And don’t touch me.”
As a minister in Menachem Begin’s first government in the late 1970s, Sharon sketched out, presented and began implementing a chain of urban, industrial settlements on the West Bank’s ridges aimed at giving Israel “strategic depth” in the occupied lands, and which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, under John Kerry’s supervision, are still haggling over – perhaps hopelessly – today. After the signing of the Oslo accords, Sharon urged settlers to “seize the hilltops”, enabling and supporting land grabs.
At 600-plus pages, this book could perhaps have been shorter. But then readers might not know, for example, details of the prodigious eating habits that contributed to Sharon’s large girth, or his habit of sometimes napping during cabinet meetings. (He would wake up, colleagues recall, only when food was brought in.) The biography also devotes great detail to the serious bribery allegations surrounding Sharon and his son Gilad, for which Israel’s state prosecutor prepared but never filed charges.
Landau, who was born in the UK and formerly edited the left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz, is an elegant writer and a superb journalist, making this book an engrossing read. What does not emerge from the account is a clear picture of Sharon’s inner life that would fully account for his move to the political centre, but then he does not sound like a man given much to reflection. In any event, the facts are there.
By the end of Sharon’s career, pro-peace activists who had called for his head over Sabra and Shatila two decades earlier were grudgingly celebrating him. In a defining speech made in 2005, he confronted religious nationalists behind the settlement enterprise, urging them to abandon their “messiah complex”. It is difficult to imagine any official in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, replete with pro-settler politicians, doing anything like this today.
John Reed is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief