A colossus of our time

October 03, 2006

[Note by Tom Gross]

IN DEFIANCE OF THE WHOLE WORLD…

Below, I attach my piece from today’s Wall Street Journal. It is a book review of the first major biography of Ariel Sharon since he withdrew Israeli troops and civilians from Gaza and suffered his overwhelming stroke. (The book is published today).

Among the points I make in it:

* Sharon was raised in impoverished conditions in pre-state Israel: his mother tied strips of leather around her feet as she farmed swampland because she didn’t want to ruin her only pair of shoes.

* In addition to his accomplished military and political careers, Sharon managed to build up Israel’s biggest cattle farm in the spartan Negev desert. He was very attached to his animals and insisted on being called by the ranch if a new calf, kid or lamb was born, even if, when he was prime minister, it meant interrupting him in the middle of a tense cabinet meeting.

* As defense minister in 1981 – and in defiance of the whole world, including the Reagan administration – he persuaded the Israeli government to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor.

* Against the wishes of virtually his entire electoral base, he closed down all the settlements in Gaza and four of those in the West Bank, with the promise of further evacuations to come. He said he wished to do what “no one – not the Turks, British, Egyptians, or Jordanians – had done before, and give the Palestinians the chance to form a state of their own.” Such a reversal wasn’t as strange as it might seem. Sharon had always been driven less by ideology than by a concern for Israel’s security, and security may well mean taking different measures at different times.



FULL ARTICLE

THE VILIFICATION OF ARIEL SHARON CONTINUES

How the soldier became a statesman
A new biography of Ariel Sharon
By Tom Gross
The Wall Street Journal
October 3, 2006

ARIEL SHARON: A Life
Published by Random House

www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110009032

Even now, as he lies in a stroke-induced coma from which he is not expected to recover, the vilification of Ariel Sharon continues. Last month, for example, one of Britain’s leading magazines, The New Statesman, in the course of attacking Tony Blair for supporting the “racist regime in Tel Aviv,” attributed to Mr. Sharon a series of racist remarks about Arabs. But Mr. Sharon had never said them. They were the words of extremists that he had specifically repudiated. It was the equivalent of taking the words of the Ku Klux Klan and putting them in the mouth of George W. Bush. The New Statesmen eventually printed a letter noting its error, but without offering an apology or official correction.

Mr. Sharon’s long and controversial career – as Israeli general, politician and peacemaker – has inspired so much vituperation and calumny that it has often been difficult, especially for observers outside Israel, to separate fact from fiction. Thus “Ariel Sharon: A Life” is especially welcome. While the authors, Israeli journalists Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom, clearly hold their subject in high esteem, their tone is far from merely adulatory. They do not shy away from the misdeeds and excesses of which Sharon has often been accused. But they seem intent, most of all, on faithfully describing the full arc of his crowded life.

Mr. Sharon’s supporters have long hailed his tough approach to terrorism and viewed him as a leader who strived to establish peace without sacrificing Israel’s security. His detractors claim that he overstepped the mark and caused unnecessary civilian suffering. All agree that he has played a pivotal role in almost every major event in modern Israeli history, and even his worst enemies acknowledge that he has shown extraordinary courage, both in battle and in politics.

A MASTER TACTICIAN

Inevitably, “Ariel Sharon: A Life” is dense with facts and incident, but it is a lucid read, well translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg. The book appeared in Israel last year; the English edition has been updated to provide a full account of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Mr. Sharon spearheaded for the Gaza move in 2004 and 2005, which spurred the formation of a new political party under his leadership. Kadima, as it is called, won the Israeli election in March of this year, even after Mr. Sharon’s stroke, largely on the basis of his popularity.

For all his political mastery, Sharon may ultimately be best remembered as a military man. He fought in all of Israel’s wars or played a major role in leading them. Time and again soldiers who served with him testified to his resilience and resourcefulness.

He was also a master tactician. His assault on Abu Agelia fortress during the 1967 Six Day War is still studied in military academies around the world. His crossing of the Suez Canal, against the orders of his superiors, changed the course of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Afterwards, at home, crowds took to the streets chanting “Arik, King of Israel.” As defense minister in 1981 – and in defiance of the whole world, including Ronald Reagan – he persuaded the Israeli government to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor.

WHAT “NO ONE HAD DONE BEFORE”

Upon retiring from the army, he put equal vigor into pursuing political goals. He forged Israel’s disparate center-right parties into the Likud, the party that dominated Israeli political life for the better part of three decades, until Sharon himself broke it in two late last year. Serving in various political posts, he was reviled by Arab extremists but respected by leading Arab moderates, such as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein.

After Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war, however, he found the most senior government posts closed to him. Sharon took the rap, as defense minister, for the reprisal massacres that Christian Arabs carried out against Muslim Arabs in Beirut in September of that year. Although a post-massacre inquiry cleared him of any direct wrongdoing, it was acknowledged that the killings had taken place while Israel had troops in Beirut and that Israel’s army could possibly have prevented them.

But he came back, as foreign minister in the 1990s and as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. In 2004, a bribery scandal plagued his administration, implicating his son. But the greatest controversy of his tenure had to do with his policy of “disengagement.”

For much of his career, Mr. Sharon had been a leading proponent of settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. But as prime minister he reversed his views. Against the wishes of virtually his entire electoral base, he closed down all the settlements in Gaza and four of those in the West Bank, with the promise of further evacuations to come. He said he wished to do what “no one – not the Turks, British, Egyptians, or Jordanians – had done before, and give the Palestinians the chance to form a state of their own.”

WITH STRIPS OF LEATHER AROUND HER FEET

Such a reversal wasn’t as strange as it might seem. Mr. Sharon had always been driven less by ideology than by a concern for Israel’s security, and security may well mean taking different measures at different times. Indeed, it had been Mr. Sharon who had forced through the traumatic withdrawal of Israeli citizens from Sinai more than two decades earlier.

While Messrs. Hefez and Bloom naturally concentrate on Mr. Sharon’s public life, they explore his hardly less tumultuous personal life too: his complex relations with his parents; the death of his first wife in 1962 in a car accident; the death of his first son in 1967, at age 11, in an accident while playing with other children; his very close bond with his second wife (who was his first wife’s sister).

We learn about the impoverished conditions in which he was raised in pre-state Israel – his mother tied strips of leather around her feet as she farmed swampland because she didn’t want to ruin her only pair of shoes – and about his later success in building up Israel’s biggest cattle farm in the spartan Negev desert. Mr. Sharon was very proud of his animals, insisting on being called from the ranch if a new calf, kid or lamb was born, even if, when he was prime minister, it meant interrupting him in a tense cabinet meeting.

In the end, to the utter astonishment of Mr. Sharon’s many enemies, opinion polls voted him the most popular prime minister in Israel’s history. Messrs. Hefez and Bloom help to show why. There will no doubt be other accounts of Mr. Sharon’s life – his close friend, the journalist Uri Dan, is bringing one out later this month, and may well offer more personal insights into what made Sharon tick. But “Ariel Sharon: A Life” is as good a place as any to start for those wanting to know more about this colossus of our time.

(Mr. Gross is former Jerusalem correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.)

For Tom Gross’s review of a biography of Yasser Arafat, please click here.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.