Ariel Sharon - complex, brilliant but a flawed leader
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Several decades ago, the journalist, Uzi Benziman, wrote a biography of Ariel Sharon. The Hebrew version appeared as He Doesn’t Stop at Red Lights. The English-language edition was sedately entitled Sharon: An Israeli Caesar — perhaps for a more impressionable readership. Yet both titles encompass the complexity of Sharon, the hard-line politician who gave up the Gaza settlements in 2005 and the brilliant soldier who turned the tide during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
He was disliked by the military, hated by the Left and feared by the Right. It was not for nothing that he was labelled “the bulldozer”. And yet when he was cut down by a stroke in 2006 while still Prime Minister, he was spoken about in a benevolent, grandfatherly fashion. In his twilight years, the controversial Mr Hyde had turned into the respected Dr Jekyll.
The key to understanding this remarkable volte-face is to view Sharon as someone who emerged from the Labour Zionist movement and not from Jabotinsky’s Revisionists or Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi. His role models were David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan rather than his fellow right--winger Menachem Begin, in whose governments he served. In the 1950s, Sharon strongly supported Ben-Gurion’s security policies and admired his political cunning.
When Ben-Gurion broke with Mapai, the forerunner of the Labour Party, in 1965, he took with him the princes of Israeli politics, Peres, Dayan, Herzog, Kollek and many others, to form Rafi. When a majority left Rafi a few years later to establish the Labour Alignment, Ben-Gurion remained with the rump, now called the State List. It became one of the founding components of the Likud in 1973. This was Sharon’s political odyssey and he was the natural matchmaker between Menachem Begin and these dissident fragments of the Labour movement.
British communal leaders fell silent after the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla camps by Christian Phalangists
Begin had actually offered Sharon a place on his party list for the 1969 election. The Labour Alignment, however, ensured that Sharon remained in the army despite a desire by the IDF’s leadership to oust him. The Labour leader, Golda Meir feared that Sharon, together with Dayan and others on the Labour Right, would leave and establish their own party. In 1973, Sharon was pointedly passed over for the post of Chief of Staff, and left to form the Likud. As the Right coalesced through Sharon’s political acumen, the Left fragmented.
Sharon followed Dayan in encouraging settlement on the West Bank and refusing to restrict land purchase. Dayan proposed changing the Labour Party’s stand from “secure and agreed borders” to “secure strategic borders”.
Sharon also saw the merit in holding the West Bank for security reasons, in that territory provided strategic depth and settlements were an impediment in the path of invading armies. This was clearly different from Begin who still believed in the “historic borders” of the state of Israel including both east and west banks of the river Jordan, as delineated by the British Mandate.
Sharon’s non-ideological mode of thinking allowed him to return Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005 and to break away from the Likud to form the Kadima Party.
Controversy closely followed Sharon throughout his military career. He had at various times been accused of insubordination, recklessness, manipulation, deviousness and disobedience, yet he was also a courageous commander who led by example on the battlefield. Despite instructions not to enter the Mitla Pass during the Suez Campaign in 1956, he did so, resulting in a quarter of all Israeli casualties taking place there.
On the eve of the Six Day War in 1967, Sharon told Rabin that the war could easily be initiated without the Cabinet’s approval and that such an action “would be well received” by the public. An official account of the 1973 Yom Kippur War by the IDF’s history department in 2002 pointed to Sharon’s violation of orders —so much so that discussions were held to remove him.
In Begin’s first government, Sharon headed the drive to establish new settlements. The population of Israel, he argued, should not be confined to a coastal strip of concrete constructions. As a farmer, he viewed this as an extension of the pioneering efforts during the pre-state era, and he regarded the conflict with the Palestinians as no more than a continuation of the war of independence of 1948.
In Begin’s second, more radical, government, Sharon was made Minister of Defence despite concerted opposition from generals past and present. And there were semi-serious jokes about Sharon parking his tanks on the Prime Minister’s lawn if he did not get his way.
The jokes turned to tears when Begin and Sharon launched Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 against the PLO in Lebanon as a result of the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Shlomo Argov, at the Dorchester Hotel by the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group.
Although it was agreed in Cabinet that it would be a short-lived exercise within a 40 km band of territory, Sharon led the troops to Beirut. The Cabinet was mired in ignorance and disarray. Sharon’s office controlled the stream of information to Begin, who seemed oblivious of the unfolding reality.
This war severely divided Jewish opinion in Britain. There were calls for Sharon’s resignation at the Board of Deputies’ debate on the war. Even initially compliant communal leaders fell silent as the war unravelled and ended in the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps by Christian Phalangists. The Kahan Commission found that Sharon bore responsibility for what had taken place in the Lebanese camps and advised him to draw “the appropriate personal conclusions”. But Sharon neither resigned, nor did Begin dismiss him. Instead he was demoted to become a minister without portfolio.
Despite posts in Shamir’s governments, Sharon’s star was fading. Yet no one seemed able to push him out of the political arena. In 1996 Netanyahu desperately wanted to keep him out of his first Cabinet, but eventually caved in. The Cabinet was actually expanded to accommodate the Ministry of National Infrastructure which had been invented for Sharon .
Despite ostensibly being in the same government and party, Sharon continually provoked the inexperienced Netanyahu as “the real voice of the Likud”. Referring to Netanyahu’s explanation of past extra-marital affairs, Sharon commented: “There are leaders who solve problems and others who get caught with their pants down”.
As Sharon’s reputation as a problem-solver soared, even US leading diplomats such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk now began to consult him. As he reached 70, Foreign Minister Sharon began to emerge as the trusted elder statesman.
At the Wye Plantation negotiations in 1998, President Clinton arranged a dinner that brought Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon together for the first time. Sharon had previously tried to kill the Palestinian leader on several occasions. Over dinner they talked about farming.
With Netanyahu’s heavy defeat in the 1999 election, Sharon became the leader of Likud in a seemingly stop-gap capacity. He was widely regarded as yesterday’s man.
Although Sharon, when a government minister, had prevented a group of religious zealots from entering the Temple Mount, he now insisted on his national right to visit the site. President Clinton unsuccessfully tried to persuade him not to carry out the visit, which undoubtedly poured oil on troubled waters. The coming of age of the suicide bomber allowed Sharon to project himself as the strong leader who could lead Israel in dark times. In the 2001 election, Sharon achieved his life’s purpose to become Prime Minister of Israel.
As history records, he crushed the Intifada and bore witness to the demise of his old nemesis, Arafat. He remarkably confronted his powerful allies, the settler lobby, evacuated 8,000 from Gaza peacefully and would have withdrawn from more of the West Bank.
Both old enemies and lifelong friends were astounded. From being boycotted by the Americans previously, he was able to persuade President Bush that some settlements would remain in Israeli hands. His bold approaches garnered the support of large numbers of Israelis so that he was able to break the Likud-Labour stranglehold and establish the centrist party Kadima. All this was achieved in five short years.
The iconic image of Ariel Sharon, head bandaged, leading the IDF in 1973 to within striking distance of Cairo, will remain embedded in public memory. The other side of the coin is that he also lived a highly controversial life, full of contradictions and extremes, based on an iron will and a bulldog tenacity never to go under, regardless of the circumstances.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS. His book ‘Israel and the World Powers’ will be published later this year.