Sharon: The Life of a Leader
by Gilad Sharon, Harper, 640 pp US$29.99
Since suffering a crippling stroke on 4 January 2006, Ariel Sharon has lain in a persistent vegetative state beyond hope of recovery. It truncated his prime ministership without ending his life, which lingers on in an irreparably broken condition. This is a mournful last stage in the life of so active a man; one of the true giants in the modern history of Israel. He was the protégé of David Ben Gurion, who gave the young Ariel Scheinermann the Hebraic name ‘Sharon’. He fought or led in every one of Israel’s wars: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, right up to the second intifada of 2000 which catapulted him into the prime ministership. And he arranged the strategic withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 in a fruitless quest for peace.
In one of history’s bitter ironies, Sharon was more respected by many of his Arab enemies than he was by some of his countrymen. An Egyptian military intelligence assessment of Sharon in the lead up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War described him as:
Full bodied silvery hair, very calm, confident, enamoured with the act of self-sacrifice, a talented officer, stubborn, dynamic, brave, in love with the Paratroopers and the Special Forces, a believer in the element of surprise, prone toward violence, loves to learn and to know.
Gilad Sharon comments in his biography of his father, Sharon: The Life of a Leader:
I would sign off on this description of my father, except for ‘prone towards violence.’ However, from the Egyptian perspective, they would see this as a trait of my father’s. After all, one isn’t victorious in battle by sending flowers.
That last sentence is surely correct, but Sharon’s willingness to use force has given him a widespread reputation for being ‘prone towards violence’, which overshadows his many other achievements. It requires a full length biography to put this in perspective. That’s what Gilad Sharon has set out to supply.
In many ways, as warrior and statesman, as farmer and family man, Sharon stands out from the ordinary run of Israeli politicians and generals like an Old Testament Jewish hero. His life echoes tropes from the greatest of the Biblical stories. Gilad, the youngest of his three sons, sensing this, has given us a biography with an unashamed personal touch that is nonetheless epic in scope. It will, I believe, stand as a more moving and intimate monument to the man than the gigantic Sharon Park being built outside Tel Aviv. Probably no-one else could have written such a portrait of Sharon. The closest to it is surely journalist Uri Dan’s memoir of a few years ago, Ariel Sharon: An Intimate Portrait, based on 50 years of friendship.
The picture Gilad Sharon paints will be treated with scepticism or even hostility by some, but no one should be deterred for that reason from reading it. It is plainly and unapologetically partisan, but it is not for that reason necessarily inaccurate. Throughout his life, Sharon has always had detractors; and for most of his career he has been dogged by accusations that he was ruthless and disdainful of the lives and human rights of Arabs. Gilad Sharon takes on all this without fear or favour. Neither his father’s political rivals, nor partisans of the Palestinian cause will take kindly to his many candid and unsparing remarks, whether about Binyamin Netanyahu or Shimon Peres, or about Yasser Arafat and Palestinian terrorism. But his candour is bracing and his trenchant defence of his father fascinating.
“Even at a young age my father had a strongly developed sense of history,” the son writes. “Over the years, he meticulously kept material, including letters, notes, maps, records of conversations, articles, speeches and detailed notebooks.” This paternal archive deeply informs the passionate biography the son has written. It is rich in photographs, hand drawn maps (as well as standard printed ones) and personal letters. Combining his personal knowledge with this rich family resource and other public documents, the filial biographer weaves together his father’s public life and private loves in a manner that even the finest of dispassionate biographers will find difficult to match. Others may write more objectively about the life and times of Ariel Sharon; but anyone setting out to draw a more intimate and moving portrait will face a daunting task.
One of the richest aspects of the book is the set of family portraits drawn around Ariel, especially those of his mother, Vera Scheinermann, and his two wives, Gali (mother of his first son, Gur, who was killed in a shooting accident in 1967, five years after his mother was killed in a car accident) and Lily (Gali’s younger sister and mother of his second and third sons, Omri and Gilad). Vera comes across as a formidable woman; Lily as an utterly charming and complete one. Gali was a woman Gilad never knew. The family’s background, from ancestral Hungary and Russia to pioneer farming in Palestine before the Holocaust and down through Gilad’s life with his parents, is beautifully drawn.
The analytical assessment of his father’s military campaigns are no less well drawn than that of his family life. His dissection of Israeli domestic politics is something that could only take place in Israel’s remarkably open and liberal society. And the son tackles head on the alleged sins of his father, of which the two most important are the killings during the Qibiya incident in late 1953 and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila districts of Beirut in 1982. Ariel Sharon was the founding commander of Unit 101, the military special force for retribution against Arab terror set up by David Ben-Gurion in 1952, and led the attack on Qibiya in 1953. He was Minister of Defence in 1982. But anyone who believes he was a heartless killer must read this book.
Sharon was a redoubtable enemy of Arab armies and terrorists. He was not a killer of innocents. He never sought to perpetrate terror – only swift retribution on those who did. The unintended deaths of 69 innocent civilians at Qibiya, and even that of Egyptian soldiers in the 1967 and 1973 wars, pained him deeply. As for Sabra and Shatila, Gilad Sharon reminds us that his father successfully sued Time magazine for what a New York jury concluded were false and defamatory assertions about his responsibility for the massacre of between 700 and 2,000 Palestinians by Christian Phalangist militia. In any case, it is salutary to be reminded that the Kahan Commission, which investigated the matter for the State of Israel, recommended that he be stood down as Minister of Defence not for inciting or endorsing the massacres but simply for not having foreseen the possibility and failing to keep the Christian militia on a tighter leash. In a context where Palestinian and other Arab leaders constantly incite their benighted peoples to genocidal massacre of Jewish civilians, this is a vital benchmark for assessing of both Ariel Sharon and the State of Israel.
One of the most striking testaments to the character of Ariel Sharon comes very late in the book and from a highly educated, multi-lingual Israeli civil servant, Marit Danon. She was Chief Secretary in the prime minister’s office; spoke eight languages and had served several previous prime ministers by the time Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001, succeeding Ehud Barak in a landslide. Danon told Barak that she was resigning, because “with that man I will not work.” “She, like many others,” Gilad comments, “had a very low opinion of my father. Barak got angry and slammed his hand down on the table. ‘That man is not who you think he is. He is a sensitive man, well read, a lover of music; you’ll see that he’s not what you think,’ he said. ‘You must stay on.'”
She did so and radically changed her mind about Sharon when she got to know him. When he had his stroke and was incapacitated, she finally resigned, saying she did not want to work with anyone else. Those who read Sharon: The Life of a Leader with anything like an open mind, will surely come to understand both why Marit Danon began with a prejudice against Ariel Sharon and ended up having such a high regard for him. They are likely to have the same experience as they get to know him through the eyes of his son. And, even if they remain somewhat sceptical, they will have read an epic account of an extraordinary life that merits pondering right down to its intimate details.
Paul Monk is Managing Director of Austhink Consulting and previously served at the Defence Intelligence Organisation as an analyst focusing on East Asia. He is a widely published commentator on public affairs. His most recent book is The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures (Barrallier Books, 2009).