Ariel Sharon 1928-2014: Israel's master of survival


Hopefully it will be seen as reasonable and not ghoulish to compare Ariel Sharon’s long death struggle to his long life. In both, he fought with notable strength and determination. In both, his legion, loving supporters hoped and prayed for his victory. And during both, his enemies levelled accusations of financial finagling against him and his sons.

As he lay in a coma, the charge was that the family was not “pulling the plug” because, by the regulations, they were getting benefits from the state, like a car, a driver and secretarial services, as long as the former prime minister lived.

As in many of the allegations against him, there was no proof, not even circumstantial, of such sordid motivation. There was no proof, moreover, that the family could have “pulled the plug”.

The two sons, Omri and Gilad, were unwavering in their demand of the hospital staff that they keep treating and keep trying to elicit cognitive and physical responses from the patient. They insisted that in their round-the-clock vigils they had sometimes seen or felt responses that the doctors did not perceive.

They could hardly deny the charge that they had designs on the taxpayer’s enforced sustenance for ex-prime ministers. After all, they were taking the benefits. “Pulling the plug,” at any rate, by whomever, would probably have involved a crime under Israeli law.

The purpose here is not to “whitewash” Sharon, nor his sons. It is to maintain that many of the allegations that triggered controversy over the years, including this last one, failed to take account of the broader picture in which Sharon operated.

As he lay there, coma-stricken and effectively paralysed for eight years, the latest elements of his life’s legacy coagulated in Israel’s national ethos. The “disengagement” of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, sad to suffer or even to witness, but smoothly carried out, transmitted unmistakable lessons for the future of the country. First, that settlements can be removed by a determined government. Second, the extra-parliamentary power and naked threats of the settlers (“It will never happen”, “We will prevent it”, “Civil war will break out”), which created a country-wide atmosphere of apprehension, were swept aside by an impressive show of force.

Sharon was accused of betraying his longtime ideological followers; but there was another, non-ideological message broadcast into the future from this act of determined leadership. It concerned the very governance, or indeed governability, of democratic Israel. Sharon felt more and more strongly, and said privately, that as prime minister his legitimate powers were ebbing away because of the settlers’ semi-coup. They were armed (legitimately) and spoke and behaved like a militia. And their influence on rightist politicians meant that he had to govern with a narrow and endangered majority. “I don’t want to waste my time on this,” he once explained to me, looking ahead to re-election.

There was disingenuousness or outright hypocrisy here because it was Sharon, in the not-so-distant past, who publicly urged the settlers to “grab hilltops” following Ehud Barak’s failure to seal an agreement with Bill Clinton and Yassir Arafat at Camp David. But as Sharon readily acknowledged, things looked very different from the prime minister’s chair than from anywhere else.

His responsibility, in this case for the basic constitutional construct of the Jewish state, spurred him as much as his determination to end the occupation — he insisted on using that word, “occupation”, hitherto used only by peaceniks and condemned as defeatism and heresy by the right and the religious — to plan the disengagement. He had to retrieve for the legitimate, elected government the sole right to threaten force or to dislocate the country (as the settler camp did by mass demonstrations).

This message reverberates down the years. The pity was that Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, preaching the same change as Sharon from a rightist to centrist position, failed to carry forward Sharon’s legacy. His soldiers and police, with weak leadership, were worsted by settlers, among them teenage girls, in a televised confrontation at Amona, on the West Bank, where the High Court had ordered evacuation and the state had pledged demolitions.

The Gaza disengagement itself and Sharon’s explanations of it brought upon Israel a welter of international approbation. Sharon experienced this rare phenomenon at first hand when he attended the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2005. Foreign leaders elbowed each other in order to get a photo-op with the Israeli prime minister — so often previously the butt of worldwide boycott or criticism. He came back to Israel glowing with gratification.

This was the first time, said American and other foreign statesmen, rightly, that Israel was not merely talking of ending the occupation and moving towards peace but was actually taking action, withdrawing its settlers and its soldiers unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and from an area of the northern West Bank. Granted, Sharon had not become a peacenik. Nor was he interested in negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority. Reading the daily intelligence briefs, he saw the Authority as still the chief source of terrorism.

But he now had a newly acute understanding of the damage to Israel’s Jewish demography and to the state’s morale that the diplomatic stagnation, based on the open-ended occupation, threatened to cause.

His last meeting, before his initial collapse in December 2005, was with the demographer Sergio Dellapergola. It focused on ways to get non-Charedi Israelis to have more children. “How many children do you have?” he suddenly shouted at one of his favourite aides. He knew the answer was two. “So what are you hanging around here for at meetings? Go home! You heard what the professor said…!”

This, then, was the ‘broad picture’ before his tragic hospitalisation. He was actively and deliberately embracing a new and moderate policy. How does this broad picture compare in national or in human terms to the recent allegations against the Sharons about a car and a secretary?

It does not. But that of course is no excuse if there was provable mens rea involved here. Nor, by the same token, does any set of circumstances from the past provide a legal — and certainly not an ethical — escape hatch for Sharon himself if he was guilty of any of the endless series of suspicions raised against him over the years. If, for instance, as minister of commerce, he deliberately kept import duties on mutton and lamb up at Muslin festival time, a decision that would benefit sheep farms such as his own (nominally it was his sons’; he had divested himself of it on taking office).

The letter of the law is undeniable in a country where all men are equal before the rule of law. But, by the same token, the law enforcement agencies must maintain their guard against political involvement in laying charges. The price of lamb may be suspect, but so is the reason why the police are suddenly examining it.

The largest element of Sharon’s legacy, it should never be forgotten, is the bold and critical victory he handed his country in the Yom Kippur War by leading Israeli forces across the Suez Canal.

The secret, simultaneous attacks on the Holy Day by Egyptian and Syrian troops may not have been intended to threaten Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, even if the initial battles went the attackers’ way. But even if they were not, battlefield victories against the IDF on the front lines would have direly eroded Israel’s deterrent credibility against its powerful neighbours.

The attacks themselves, causing huge Israeli losses, spread a justified atmosphere of fear throughout the country. For the first time since 1948 (and the last time till now, or at any rate until the Iranian nuclear threat), Israelis feared for the existence of their state.

Darkening the already sombre battlefield horizon were ‘the wars of the generals’ which erupted within hours of the outbreak of hostilities. Sharon, as usual, was in the very vortex, accused of insubordination by other generals. He had quit the army earlier in the year and launched a political career, coaxing and cajoling a raft of small parties to join Menachem Begin’s Herut and the Liberal Party to create a large Likud, a credible opposition to the dominance of Labour, the governing party.

One anecdote tells it all. Gen Sharon reached the battle theatre in Sinai a day after the surprise attack by Egypt. He was accompanied by a longtime aide, General Abrasha Tamir. When they stopped, he saw Gen Tamir looking back up the road they had come on. “What are you looking back for?” Gen Sharon asked. “The enemy’s up there, ahead.” “No, sir,” the wily Gen Tamir replied. “The enemy’s up there, behind us!”

Sharon’s officers, and he himself, seriously feared that the High Command, influenced by the government, would rob their division of the glory of crossing the Canal first.

In the event, portending trouble, Sharon’s division, 143, was nicknamed ‘the Likud division’, while the other front-line division in central Sinai, 162 under Gen Avraham ‘Bren’ Adan, answered to ‘the Labour division’.

Sharon was no innocent lamb. As soon as the fighting finished late in October, he invited a New York Times reporter to his command wagon on the Egyptian side of the Canal and implicitly boasted that the strategy of bringing the war across the Canal to the enemy was his. This was not correct. The strategy was the longtime consensus of the whole High Command and the top government ministries. In fact, it is clear from cabinet protocols that Prime Minister Golda Meir took it for granted that the IDF would try to cross as per strategy — and that Arik would lead the crossing.

The wars of the generals, even when fought in public, never derogated from the public sense that Israel faced disaster in September 1973. Many officers and men, who had not fought in Gen Sharon’s division and had no prior loyalty or commitment to him, came back with the judgment that Sharon had saved the situation, that without his calm, steadfast personal command at crucial, under-fire moments, there would likely have been no Israeli crossing on October 15-16, nor ever.

A minute-by-minute record of that night, bolstered by radio recordings and interviews with key officers, is still breathtaking.

There are examples in history where a general, regardless of his subsequent contributions to his country as a politician, is exulted down the generations for the military significance of his legacy.

The Duke of Wellington is a salient example in British history. Many British people know a little about the Battle of Waterloo. Far fewer know anything about Wellington’s subsequent prime ministership, or indeed that he had one.

To his credit (the two of them had a sour relationship), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of stressing in all his public eulogising this week Sharon’s role in turning the Yom Kippur War around. It has been almost as though the present prime minister is revving up to join the — still rumbling — ‘wars of the generals’.

Saving the country at Yom Kippur (it was actually Shmini Atzeret when he crossed) does not give Sharon any exemption from the rule of law. But it makes him a national hero. And as such it should give him protection from disproportionate petty legal assaults, launched sometimes out of hatred or jealousy, or ideological zeal.

‘Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon’ by David Landau is available on Amazon and will be published in the UK shortly

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