The unlikely peacemaker
Interview with ex-Jerusalem Post managing editor David Landau
Israel’s lightly manned forts were surrounded, and within a day its armored units and air force had suffered unforeseen losses.
Trauma swept the country’s leadership. For the first time, the previously all-conquering IDF brass was filled with self-doubt.
Yet 13 days later, Israeli soldiers and tanks were on the Egyptian side of the canal, slicing through the Arab formations, with the Jewish state on the brink of victory. The symbol of that triumph in many ways was the stocky general, Ariel Sharon. “Even if nothing had happened in his life after the Yom Kippur War, that war alone would have imprinted Ariel Sharon’s name indelibly into Israel’s history,” writes veteran journalist David Landau.
Landau’s career has spanned more than four decades in Israel, and he is perfectly placed to write the biography of one of Israel’s seminal, and at times most controversial, leaders. “My formative years were spent at The Jerusalem Post and after two years or so on the night desk, I got a job as a reporter… I was the diplomatic correspondent for 12 or more years,” Landau says in an interview in his spacious apartment in Jerusalem. Books on the Holocaust and Judaism in the UK line part of a bookshelf in his study. Poking out of one shelf is his insightful and original 1992 book, Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism.
As a diplomatic correspondent in the ’70s and ’80s, Landau met many of the politicians of the day and was witness to the Sturm und Drang of the era – embodied by Sharon as much as anyone else. However, the origins of Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon are more prosaic than might be expected. Landau was approached in the early 2000s by the New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. to write a biography. At the time, “he was prime minister and I was editor of Haaretz. It was impossible from an ethical point of view to work on this. I met with him and I said to him that when the two of us are no longer in our jobs, then please God I have to do this biography with you.”
Tragically, Sharon suffered a massive stroke on January 4, 2006. Landau writes, “I wish I’d had the journalistic good sense to spend more time talking to him during his wilderness years.
But like so many Israelis, I wrote him off as yesterday’s man.”
Having a professional distance from Sharon, who penned his own autobiography – Warrior, in 1989 – allows one a certain distance from a polarizing figure. This account of the general- turned-politician’s life is non-judgmental; neither hagiographic nor overly critical. But Landau is careful to investigate many issues in Sharon’s career that have been a source of lasting controversy.
For instance, after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatilla massacre by Christian militias, then-defense minister Sharon was forced to resign. Later, he was accused of misleading prime minister Menachem Begin about the course of the initial invasion, which sought to root out Palestinian terror in Lebanon.
“I think its fair to say that Menachem Begin is restored to his central role in Israeli history [in my book],” said Landau, “most importantly, in regard to the Lebanon War. I do not accept the [political] spin that put Begin in a state of inoperative depression and cast Sharon as, in effect, the force behind the war and the misleader of Begin.
“I bring enough evidence to show that this is not the case. Begin was the man who dreamed up the strategy of the Jews saving the [Lebanese] Christians. He was fully aware and I bring evidence that will sway the reader.”
ARIEL SHARON was born in 1928 on Moshav Kfar Malal. He served in the pre-state underground, the Hagana, and fought in the tragic battles around Latrun, in which numerous IDF soldiers died in hopeless attacks on the British-era police fortress occupied by the Jordanian Arab Legion that lay across the road to Jerusalem. He played a pivotal role in the reprisal policy of the 1950s and the formation of Unit 101, a special-forces formation that combated Arab terrorists and infiltrators. In the 1956 invasion of Sinai he commanded the Paratrooper Brigade, and in 1967 he was running an armored division.
In a sense, Sharon was at the center of almost every major military event in Israel’s history, and in the units that embodied each period. His fall from grace in the 1980s therefore represented a huge setback to what seemed like a budding political career.
These were the first of the wilderness years, where he returned Cincinnatus-like to his farm in the Negev. But all the time Sharon fought doggedly to preserve his public image, suing Time magazine and journalist Uzi Benziman at Haaretz.
Landau is adamant that Sharon was the winner in these two trials. “I reported on the trial [against Time] in New York, and what is important is that he won against them, not that he wasn’t awarded damages; and against Uzi Benziman, too. Uzi cannot claim to have won.”
These cases were important for Sharon’s battle for history, as important as his battle after 1973 over who was responsible for the victory in the war. The author argues that this is difficult for those who did not experience the Yom Kippur War to fully grasp. “The experience of the war is incomparably stronger than anything else you can point to in the life of Ariel Sharon; in the war, there was real naked fear that the entire existence as a sovereign State of Israel was hanging in the balance.
“I’m not sure that was true or not, but if Israel had lost the war, had they succeeded in keeping forces inside Sinai, even if they hadn’t advanced to Beersheba, the fact that they had beaten Israel in battle would grievously have weakened Israel and its deterrent.
Weakened its strategic position… and the controversies around that and around Sharon and the battles of the generals were every bit as bitter as the later ones.”
Landau, who served as a sergeant in the IDF Artillery Corps, notes, “I make no claim to be anything of a military expert, but I spoke to so many senior officers, people with no commitment or debt to Sharon, people with credibility… a lot of people say if he wasn’t there during the crucial hours of the crossing, then it wouldn’t have happened.”
People often forget today how vicious the political hatred of Sharon was in those days. After Sabra and Shatilla, he was besieged in his ranch by protesters from nearby kibbutzim. Even during 1973, Landau reveals in an anecdote that Sharon’s aide, Abrasha Tamir, had been looking back, toward Israel, during the opening days of the conflict. Sharon chided him that “the enemy is over there,” and Tamir responded, “The enemy is behind us.” Such was the recrimination that Sharon’s own armored division was called the “Likud” division, to cast aspersion on his political differences with the Labor officers running the country and the army.
But Landau is careful to point out that the general played a role in shaping his own history, in exaggerating his accomplishments.
In a New York Times interview after 1973, he claimed he came up with the idea to cross the canal. However, “it was the unanimous strategic preference of the high command and the top ministers from [prime minister] Golda [Meir] down… their assumption is that was what the army was intending to do… So Sharon, to the extent that he gave this impression, was playing fast and loose with the truth.”
WHAT THE reader comes away from Arik with is that Sharon was not easily pigeonholed into one political camp. He was not ideologically a Herutnik or Revisionist.
There is also a feeling one gets from the book that Sharon was an expert opportunist, who often took the ideas of others and made them into reality.
“You should apply this with building settlements. He wasn’t the only person on the Right who wanted this. He was the man who was putting them up. Begin and [Yitzhak] Shamir were not only happy, they were the spirit [behind the building initiatives]. That is what I feel about Sharon, he was the brilliant executor of what other people had conceived.”
“That goes for the Lebanon War, too. Begin saw the Lebanon situation in a romantic way, the Christians and such, and similarly the West Bank, ‘There will be a lot of Elon Morehs [a settlement],’ etc. But in the last act, when Sharon was housing minister and putting up settlements, and the Americans would tell Shamir to stop building, we know that what Sharon was doing was to Shamir’s gratification.”
Even when he sat in a right-wing government and was considered an extreme- Right politician in the 1980s and ’90s, Landau reveals that Sharon often felt more comfortable around old Labor politicians. These were the “hevre” he had served with in the Hagana and in the 1950s, when he was close to prime minister David Ben-Gurion and defense minister Moshe Dayan.
One of the most original ideas Sharon once embraced was the argument that Jordan was “Palestine” and that Palestinians should make a national home there, where their demographics made them a majority of the population. In the 1990s Sharon championed this idea, but ditched it after the peace with Jordan in 1994. “He found himself virtually deserted. When he took the position that he took in the high command, when Syria was invading Jordan [in 1972] and America wanted Israel to deploy in a threatening way [to assist King Hussein] during Black September, Sharon said ‘Why should we care?’ He preferred that the Palestinians take over Jordan. It would become much more rational, with no need to keep supporting a colonialist creature.”
Landau smiles mischievously when asked about this issue of “Jordan is Palestine,” arguing that on this issue Sharon was “challenging an article of faith” in Israel.
“‘Jordan is Palestine’ is not eccentric, it is an interesting and persuasive outlook on the Middle East, and that is why I did spend a lot of space on it [in the book].”
IT IS primarily for the disengagement from Gaza that Sharon will be remembered. Earlier in the book, Landau writes that “Sharon left two momentous marks on the history and geography of his country. One, the Jewish settlements all across the Palestinian areas… the other, a network of Jewish villages spread across the hilltops of the Galilee.”
But the “father of the settlements” who told youth to “seize the hilltops” was also the precedent setter, as Landau sees it, who showed they could be rolled back.The backdrop of this plan was Sharon’s political instincts after 9/11, in which he was outspoken about the relationship with the US, and found in president George W. Bush a close companion. Landau argues that an exchange of letters between them in 2004 is one of the most important parts of the legacy.
“I totally agree with his assessment and I submit that the essence of the content of the exchange of letters has become the essence of the peace process. When US Secretary [of State John] Kerry said [in early January], ‘We all know the content of our evolving framework,’ he was referring to the basic ideas of the land swaps and Israel retaining the big blocs of settlements. Sharon was responsible for making these ideas acceptable to the Right in Israel. It was unimaginable to us that the Right would accept the idea of ceding sovereign land, let alone biblical West Bank land.”
In a sense, Israel lives today in the shadow of this policy of disengagement and changing the political paradigm of what a final-status agreement will look like.
“We talked about the disengagement, and I want to say that another extremely important part of his legacy was the disengagement’s domestic significance,” asserts Landau. “I want to remind you of the atmosphere when the right-wing religious movement was using the words ‘civil war’ in an almost normal way, as if this was normal for a democratic country; there was a fear of armed confrontation. And I think that Sharon’s legacy, maybe the most important aspect of his legacy was this constitutional precedent, in that he determined that in our country, like in other democratic countries, the sole wielder of power is the elected legitimate government of the day.”
Landau seems especially troubled by his own experience during the disengagement.
“I was there in 2005 and I insist in the book that what defeated the settler leaders’ attempt to thwart the disengagement – flocking as they could into Gaza, to back up the original settlers – was the massive [IDF and police] deployment. I remember seeing serried ranks [of soldiers and vehicles] running into the desert. These serried ranks were determined to prevent settlers from moving towards Gaza and it was these ranks [that made the difference], and not the sudden switch to moderate behavior by the settlers and the spin they put on it, but Sharon’s iron will.”
Landau sees the former prime minister as a “late bloomer” who had a lasting effect on Israel’s relationship with the US, and who played a key role in setting the precedent for further withdrawals. Sharon himself was more grandiose in his vision, as the author writes: “He was looking at himself as just one link in the chain of Jewish history.”
Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon
By David Landau
631 pages; $35