The Israeli Landscape I Saw Through Ariel Sharon’s Eyes

By David Chanoff

Published March 17, 2006, issue of March 17, 2006.
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Ariel Sharon lies comatose in a Jerusalem hospital. Obituary writers are sorting through their documents, their impressions, sometimes their interview notes, awaiting the inevitable and trying to figure out how to place this man, so reviled and so admired, so full of apparent contradictions, cut down just as he was in the process of revealing his latest and possibly most momentous incarnation.

I had my own experiences with Sharon, on his farm, in his office, walking through the battlefields of his younger years. I was his collaborator, his ghostwriter. For 18 months I tried to live inside his mind and grasp the whys and hows of his life. I was not a passionately involved Israeli struggling with a lifetime of emotions about the man. Just an American Jew who needed to absorb everything I could about Sharon’s history and that of his country’s, to see how the two stories intersected at every critical juncture, what it all added up to — and, most importantly, what he believed it all added up to.

Perceptive commentators have written about the old Sharon and the new, the die-hard warrior and the emergent peacemaker. They write about the blunt force who became a strategic innovator, a cunning man — “like a Bedouin tracker or a Cherokee scout,” one said — who showed a deeper intelligence after contemplating the tragic consequences of his past decisions. They miss the essential Sharon, I think. They do not see what I saw.

If I had to pinpoint the psychological origin of what I would call a remarkably consistent life, I would reluctantly pass over the influence of his iron-willed mother and stiff-necked agronomist father. I would instead go back to a battle he fought at age 20 in front of a ruined Crusader fort overlooking the Jerusalem road at a place called Latrun. Here, in the late spring of 1948, a lithe, athletic Sharon had commanded the lead platoon in a badly delayed night attack meant to open the road to a cut off and starving Jerusalem.

Almost exactly four decades later, Sharon led me through the fields in front of that road, where his first men fell to machine-gun fire knifing through the standing wheat. We came to the wadi where his sergeant went down, then to the shallow depression where they were when the sudden Judean sunrise revealed them to the Jordanians on the hillside. Of his 36 men, Sharon that day lost 25 either dead or wounded. Shot in the groin himself, he crawled to safety, helped by a badly wounded 16-year-old who had joined the platoon just two days before.

Latrun was not Sharon’s only Independence War disaster. “By the age of 20,” he told me, “most of my friends were dead.” Unlike some Israeli commanders, he never denigrated the Arabs’ fighting qualities, even objecting pointedly when retired British field marshal Bernard Law Montgomery characterized them as “10-minute fighters” during a lecture in 1957 at Great Britain’s staff college, where Sharon was then studying. He didn’t think so, Sharon told Montgomery. He knew better.

Americans tend to think of Israel as a pocket Hercules. Little Israel fighting off five Arab armies in the War of Independence in 1948, cracking through Egyptian defenses in the Sinai campaign of 1956, destroying Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces in the 1967 Six-Day War, and saving themselves from the jaws of destruction in 1973 — and ending the Yom Kippur War on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal and halfway to Damascus.

But Sharon’s formative experiences had little to do with this notion of Israeli power. Victory in 1948 left him depressed and anxious, brooding over losses and beset by nightmares. That deep-seated sense of Israel’s vulnerability never left him until the moment of his collapse. Nor did his belief that the task of his generation was to break the mindset that Israel had no business existing and should be stamped out.

Sharon, unlike so many in the West, understood Arab intransigence as a profound force, different qualitatively from other great historical enmities: Turkish-Greek, Korean-Japanese, French-German. When I once asked why he thought so, Sharon suggested I look at the Koran. What he meant, I think, is the Islamic belief that the Jews are a superseded people, punished and despised by God, a people whose enmity to the Prophet brought Divine vengeance and turned them into a humiliated, cowardly and servile race for eternity.

The fact that a people so damned by Allah might recreate itself, lay claim to Islam’s third holiest city and defeat Arab armies time and again is for many devout Muslims an intolerable assault on their faith. Arab enmity, from this perspective, is not just the anger of an injured people. It is a hatred rooted in religion, a historic determination not to let faith be defeated, like the hatred and contempt felt by Crusaders for Muslims who controlled what they felt to be the Christian holy land.

Over the years, Sharon came to see that his life’s work was to establish beyond any possible doubt Israel’s claim to the land, that nothing would make it go away — that Arab hatred, whatever its origin, would spend itself in a waste of blood that would gain nothing but lose much, and that in the end, there would be nothing for it but to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. To this work, he brought creative powers that were evident from the start. His enemies on Israel’s left liked to think of him as a visceral, semi-literate brute. But looking at his life objectively, you can see the emergence very early on of a high-order intelligence.

Sharon’s capacity for breakthrough thinking showed itself first in 1953. By then Israel’s military capability had plummeted dangerously. Frustrated and unable to cope with incessant terrorist strikes, the army reached for a new strategy of deterrent retaliation. To carry it out, they turned to Sharon, then a 25-year-old retired officer studying Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University.

Gathering a handful of comrades from his old units, Sharon struck at a notorious gang based in Nebi Samueli behind Jordanian lines. The raid was a fiasco. The intelligence was bad, the explosives didn’t work, the villagers woke up and started shooting. Sharon and his friends barely got out alive.

Afterward, Sharon proposed the creation of an elite force trained and equipped for such actions. This was Unit 101, which soon merged with the paratroopers, giving Israel its first effective military deterrent. Some objected to the new level of violence, but Sharon believed that Israel had to defend itsself forcefully, not only so that her enemies would think twice about their actions, but so that the Israeli public would not come to feel defenseless and demoralized. Sharon’s paratroopers reframed the political-military picture and helped set a national psychological tone of toughness and determination.

After that, Sharon became the fist end of Israel’s military. In 1956 he commanded the Israeli thrust toward the Suez. As a division commander in the Six-Day War, he unhinged Egypt’s mid-Sinai defenses. Later, as commander of the Southern Front, Sharon opposed the Bar-Lev concept of defending the canal with strong points; he created lateral and transverse roadways that enabled in-depth defense, which proved prescient when Egypt’s Yom Kippur attack destroyed Israel’s canal-line forts.

Anticipating the Egyptian assault, Sharon prepared a crossing site from the Israeli side, hardening a staging area and hollowing out embankment walls for easy removal. After the Egyptian crossing was contained, Sharon’s division penetrated enemy lines at exactly this site and crossed the canal, enabling the encirclement of the Egyptian army and effectively ending the war.

When the Yom Kippur War began, Sharon had retired, though he still commanded a reserve division, and was thinking about politics. Many former generals had run for office, but just joining a party and entering his name didn’t attract him.

Besides, Sharon’s ideas about security differed from those of the reigning Labor Party, and though a democracy, Israel was essentially a one-party state. Labor had dominated the pre-state Jewish Agency as well as the national government since Israel’s founding in 1948. In opposition was an agglomeration of small parties, most of which despised each other as vigorously as they hated Labor.

Out in the fields driving his tractor, Sharon began incubating the idea of combining these squabbling opposition groups into a single party that might realistically challenge Labor. No actual politician, he said later, would have considered such an idea as serious, or even sane. His advantage, he told me, was that he knew nothing at all about politics.

In a characteristic display of chutzpah, once Sharon decided to go ahead with the coalition idea, he simply called a press conference and announced his plan. The media came — he was a renowned general with a maverick reputation — and decided that after a quarter century of Labor rule, this was, perhaps, a cogent concept. Suddenly Sharon was not just a pensioned-off old soldier with delusions of grandeur, he was a catalyst. And once Herut Party leader Menachem Begin signed on, the Likud became a reality.

Israel’s interparty conflicts make American politics look like a Sunday picnic, and Sharon’s many enemies could barely tolerate the thought that this man, whom they considered a retrogressive bully, was responsible for turning Israel into a functioning democracy. Yet that accomplishment might well be his most significant legacy.

The anger Sharon generated among many Israelis came from three main sources.

In the first place, he was a Labor Party man who broke away. This was more than just switching party affiliation, like a Democrat turning Republican; it was considered to be nothing less than political treason. Labor was socialist, a party grounded in a moral system. In earlier times, Labor’s enemies, Begin in particular, were rarely mentioned without the epithet “fascist.” So Sharon did not simply change parties, he went over to the Dark Side.

The second thing that made him anathema to many of his fellow countrymen was Israel’s settlement policy, which was his initiative. To truly understand Sharon’s strategy, one had to see the West Bank through his eyes — literally.

For years, he took every visitor who would go, up onto the West Bank’s hills and ridges. Looking eastward, you could see the sparse line of Israeli kibbutzim that guarded the Jordan River, on whose far side lay the confrontational states of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. “You see,” he’d tell his guests, “without control of the high ground, those places down there are defenseless.”

Looking westward, visitors got an even starker lesson. Before their eyes lay Israel’s narrow coastal plain, with its concentration of population and industry. There was Israel’s one international airport. And there were the country’s three power plants, two in plain sight, one visible from the smoke issuing out of its tall stack.

“Would we ever,” Sharon would ask, “allow enemy forces to look down on us like this?”

Prior to the 1981 elections, he arranged voter tours of exactly these areas and let people reflect on how their own homes, factories and schools looked from the high ground. More than 300,000 Israelis came, looked and reflected — and Likud won the election.

The third source of Israelis’ ire toward Sharon was the war in Lebanon, like the settlement policy a Sharon initiative. And much like his view of the West Bank, Lebanon constituted for Sharon a potentially fatal challenge to Israeli life.

During the 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization had established itself in Lebanon as an armed state within a state, precipitating a civil war that by 1981 had shattered the country’s traditional coalition government, which for decades had maintained a peaceful border with Israel. Screened behind Syrian forces that occupied part of the country, the PLO was mounting increasing terrorist operations inside Israel and acquiring a massive concentration of long-range artillery, which they started using to bombard towns and villages in Israel’s north.

Israel’s military responses brought only brief respites. American diplomatic efforts were equally ineffective. Seeing the beginnings of economic and population contraction in the north, Sharon, now defense minister, grasped that the only solution would be to move the PLO out of southern Lebanon altogether, even though that might mean a fight with the Syrians. Together with Prime Minister Begin, he resolved to do exactly that, and on June 6, 1982, Sharon launched Israeli forces across the border. When the Syrians opted to protect their PLO allies, the Israelis and Syrians locked horns.

It was in the course of this battle that Israeli forces linked up with Christian militias and surrounded Beirut, where the PLO had holed up. Sharon was bent on getting rid of the Palestinian fighters. But the Americans were intent on bringing the PLO to the bargaining table and were using the Israeli threat as leverage. The resulting impasse saw the Israelis slowly tightening the noose around the city with the entire world watching on television and Labor-inspired anti-war sentiment mounting.

In the end, Sharon had his way, almost. The Americans finally told Arafat he would have to leave. Almost 9,000 PLO fighters and cadres were rudely expelled from the city along with 6,000 Syrians and other foreign militants.

Israeli and Lebanese intelligence knew the fleeing PLO had left many fighters and large weapons stockpiles behind, hoping to rebuild their infrastructure once the situation had settled and the Israelis were gone. Nevertheless, the expulsion of Arafat and the bulk of his forces was an extraordinary triumph. For a moment, it seemed as though Sharon’s tactical and strategic abilities had secured Israel once again.

By early August, Sharon had won the ground fight. But the media war was a disaster. Homegrown demonstrations were reminiscent of America’s anti-Vietnam movement. Opprobrium poured in from abroad. Sharon was portrayed as a brutal militarist intent only on destruction, disregarding all attempts at compromise. And then came the two death strokes: the assassination of Bashir Gemayel and the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Gemayel was the youngish leader of Lebanon’s Christians, the man Sharon believed capable of restoring the status quo ante of coalition government and peace with Israel. On August 23, 1982, Lebanon’s parliament elected him president. Three weeks later, he was blown up in a Syrian-engineered explosion.

Only a few days earlier, Sharon and Gemayel had been discussing peace terms. They had also talked about West Beirut, where several thousand PLO fighters had gone underground, managing to avoid expulsion. Both men understood that the PLO’s continued presence would destabilize the capital and reignite the civil war. They had agreed that the PLO enclaves and weapons had to be destroyed, and that Lebanese forces would do it.

Now, in the confusion following Gemayel’s assassination, Sharon decided that eliminating these strongholds was critical. On September 16, Christian forces entered the PLO neighborhoods of Sabra and Shatila. The next day the world learned that a massacre had taken place. At the epicenter of the eruption of anger that followed was Sharon.

Following a judicial investigation headed by the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan, Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister. The Kahan Commission had found that he was “indirectly responsible” for the massacre in that he should have anticipated the potential and taken steps to prevent it. Labor and Peace Now reviled him as a murderer. Time magazine ran an explosive article accusing him of discussing revenge for Gemayel with Lebanese Christian leaders.

Sharon sued Time in the United States and Israel. Both trials found the magazine piece to be false and defamatory. Sharon himself was livid, not just about the Time fabrication, but about the commission’s conclusions. He was even angrier about the persistent accusation that he had manipulated then-prime minister Begin and the government into the war. And in fact, a close inspection of the Cabinet transcripts from the period shows that Sharon was meticulous about keeping the other government ministers informed of each development and asking their approval, and that Begin, far from being Sharon’s dupe, was a powerful and guiding presence throughout.

Sharon was never apologetic about Lebanon. Nor was he about the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, another of his initiatives that drew scathing international condemnation.

Yet among the Middle East’s fascinating “what ifs” is the question of what might have eventuated had Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear weapons. Would he have used them on Iran, on Israel? And how might America’s response have differed if a nuclear-armed Saddam had occupied Kuwait? And if the PLO had been allowed to establish a true army structure in Lebanon in alliance with Syria, what then might have followed, another full-scale regional conflagration?

Sharon was fond of saying that Jews and Arabs could find ways to live together. I believed both then and now that he was sincere in this. His own approach to finding these ways rested first and foremost on the belief that Israel had to be secure. In seeking this end, his policies had nothing to do with hatred of Arabs, an expansionist agenda or a belief in God-ordained boundaries.

Sharon was in his soul a pragmatic man. He understood that circumstances changed and that what might be a sensible solution yesterday might not be today. Facing the Egyptian army on the Suez Canal, he was a devotee of in-depth, fluid defense, but confronted with the second intifada, he built a rigid wall to keep homicidal Hamas bombers at bay. He constructed settlements on the West Bank high ground because he thought them necessary for defense. He tore down settlements in Gaza when he believed they had served their purpose.

Likud, the party he more than anyone else had founded, never trusted him. They knew that at heart he was not one of them. In a party that believed in the Greater Land of Israel as a matter of principle, he was a pragmatist among ideologues, a maverick with an unpredictable disposition.

Sharon possessed immense military and political creativity. But what made him such a force was that he also had the steel will to carry out his solutions, even when half of Israel was seething with anger or Europeans and Americans thought him inflammatory and dangerous. With Yasser Arafat dead, he sensed the possibility of a new era with the Palestinians, like a bloodhound sniffing something different in the air. He sensed, too, that the Israeli body politic was ready for a party that would be poised to exploit the changed circumstances while keeping Israel’s powder very dry.

Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan once told Sharon that Israel would only turn to him in dire emergencies. In 2001 and 2003, as Palestinian violence raged, Israeli voters did exactly that. They understood by then that Sharon was a man who could shape landscapes.

Now, outside Sharon’s hospital window, a new landscape is taking shape. Kadima, the party he created, will try to intuit how he might have imposed himself on this one. I don’t think he considered for a moment that he would not be around to conduct his last grand strategy in person.






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