David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, the most liberal daily newspaper in Israel, has written a nuanced, insightful and, ultimately, favorable biography of Ariel Sharon. Published in the US — a little eerily, the very day before Sharon died after eight years in a coma — it will be regarded, in the years to come, as the definitive work on the eleventh prime minister’s life.
Landau rules emphatically in Sharon’s favor on his two most central historic undertakings: the crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War and the disengagement from Gaza — both of which, particularly within Israel, were tarnished by claims of self-interest. He also dismisses the enduring narrative that Sharon duped prime minister Menachem Begin in 1982 and led Israel, by all forms of treachery, deeper into Lebanon than Begin ever sought or was aware.
In a recent interview at his Jerusalem home, Landau said that when his publisher, Knopf, approached him with the idea of writing a biography of Sharon, back in 2001-2, he warned that despite the knee-jerk negative reaction to the man in many liberal and literary circles, his account would “not be black or white… I made it clear I would come at it with an open mind.”
In the pages of “Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon,” Landau reveals, for the first time, a “heinous act of violence” toward Bedouin in the Sinai in 1972, which allegedly led to the deaths of at least 23 people from exposure to the cold. He presents a grim charge of cowardice leveled at Sharon after the 1956 battle at the Mitla Pass. And while not ruling on the matter, he lets the reader know that some friends of Sharon’s first wife, Gali, refused to attend his wedding to his second wife, Gali’s younger sister Lily, one year after Gali’s car veered into oncoming traffic. But on the defining features of his life, Landau rather vehemently agrees with the Sharon narrative.
The first case in point is the Yom Kippur War. Not only does Landau find that prime minister Golda Meir, for whom the author had developed over the years “a thorough dislike,” was in fact “full of vim, full of guts” and altogether “impressive as a war leader,” but also that Sharon, despite everything, won the war. “I don’t see myself in anyway as a whitewasher of Ariel Sharon,” Landau said. But without him, “there would not have been a crossing [of the Suez Canal]… There is no escaping that truth.”
This may seem obvious to international readers. But it is not. The southern front during the Yom Kippur War was not just the site of a lopsided battle in which the wildly outnumbered Israeli troops stationed along the Suez Canal and in the Sinai desert were overrun by Egyptian troops during the first stage of the war, but it was also, Landau writes, a war theater animated by “an ugly subtext, replete with political rivalries and personal animosities.”
Put simply, the major military players — the commander of the southern front, Shmuel Gonen; the commander of the 162nd armored division, Avraham “Bren” Adan (whose troops, and not Sharon’s, eventually crossed the canal en masse); the chief of the General Staff, David Elazar; the former chief of the General Staff-cum-Labor minister, Chaim Bar-Lev, who assumed command of the front during the early days of the war — all openly distrusted Sharon. Some detested him. Some sought to have him stripped of his command during the war. All save Gonen and Elazar wrote or authorized books that advanced, to one degree or another, the theory that Sharon excelled primarily at self-aggrandizement and that, other than prove a hindrance and a habitually insubordinate officer, he did not play a central role in the ultimate victory in the Sinai in 1973.
Landau categorically casts that aside. And while he does highlight Sharon’s dexterity with the media, he rules that the armored push west toward the canal, which came on the tenth night of the war and was likely the most difficult battle the Israeli army has ever fought, was won because of Sharon — his daring, his tenacity, his feel for the battlefield and his devotion to offensive action. “Sharon, whatever the subsequent — and previous — controversies surrounding him, has his place assured in the Israeli pantheon on the basis of that one night’s battle,” Landau writes.
He is similarly favorable about the August 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. He critiques the unilateralism presented by Sharon as a policy of last resort, as, in fact, “a policy of first resort, even of first choice,” and calls his failure to coordinate the move with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas “inexplicable, almost perverse.” But after conducting some 90 interviews, including with prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, along with Sharon’s chief castigator from within the defense establishment, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, he writes that Sharon genuinely believed that “the very survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” was endangered by widespread settlement policy, and that, “Despite the frustrating and heartbreaking regression in peace prospects in the years since the Gaza disengagement, the impact of his last, audacious act may yet prove irreversible. And if it does,” he writes, closing the section on the Gaza withdrawal, “Zionism will have been saved.”
The early parts of the book, up to the Yom Kippur War, are brief and perhaps overly brisk. The first chapter, in the span of 16 pages, moves from Sharon’s forebears and their place within the Zionist movement, to the end of the War of Independence, where he nearly lost his life. Vera Scheinerman, Sharon’s domineering mother, who slept with a firearm under her bed until well into her 80s, is a figure worthy of further exploration.
The same could be said of Gur, his firstborn son, who died tragically in a gun accident. True, Sharon’s own depictions of the horror of his eldest son’s death are painfully spectacular, but in this, probably the last major biography to be done in the coming years, it would have been helpful to hear Omri Sharon, who sat for several interviews, and others, describe the toll that the loss took not just on Sharon personally but on his family. My sense is that it was considerable.
At times, Landau’s reportorial succinctness serve him well. In discussing the aftermath of the Lebanon War, he writes a single, one-sentence paragraph summing up the charges against the defense minister: “Sharon’s guilt was that he should have known.”
After the war, Begin’s sharp contrition and his tragic demise made Sharon, in the eyes of many, “the father of the settlements, as though Begin were merely their doddery old grandfather, and the sole villain of the Lebanon debacle, as though there had been no prime minister above him,” he writes.
To be sure, Landau levels some tough criticism at Sharon. He presents an especially troubling picture of his performance during the battle at the Mitla Pass in 1956. He unveils an unknown story of the Sharon-led expulsion of Bedouin in the central Sinai, which led to over 23 deaths [but also enabled a secret IDF drill, witnessed by Meir and Dayan, in which an entire armored division crossed the flooded Rufa'a Dam, thereby readying both the troops and the government for the crucial move in the Yom Kippur War]. And he rightly notes the glaring omission in Sharon’s account of the cabinet meeting that sealed his fate after the Lebanon War: That the day was marked not merely by the heated support for him outside the room, which further agitated the members of Begin’s cabinet, but also by the murder of Emil Grunzweig, the peace activist.
Finally, although Landau expresses regret at forgoing the opportunity to spend time with Sharon during his wilderness years — “like so many Israelis, I wrote him off as yesterday’s man” — he does manage to convey the flip side of the leader whom Ari Shavit once called “the Samurai of Zionism”: Sharon, through the eyes of his staff, and particularly his personal secretary, Marit Danon, is brought to life as a lonely, gently flirtatious, highly verbal widower with a lust for food and, though he understood that leadership was synonymous with lonesomeness, a constant and endearing tug toward the company of others.
Accurately summing up the man, Landau depicts him in January 2005 speaking before a sparsely populated Knesset hall. He quotes Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the chief restorer of the Hebrew language, as saying that Jewish nationhood rests on two pillars, the land and the language. Sharon, Landau writes, would often ask Danon questions like “Does not your soul yearn for the falafel?” At times he would proclaim that his aide, Uri, “is assailed by famine.” This, Landau asserts, was because, for Sharon,”The language, like the land, was his responsibility.”