Biography of Ariel Sharon
Arik Scheinerman, the man from Kfar
The scene takes place in February 1982. The peace pact with Egypt is four years old. As Minister of Defense in the government Menahem Begin, the historical right-wing nationalist leader, Ariel Sharon goes to Cairo. As in all his travels, Shimon Shiffer, reporter for the populist daily Yediot Aharonot accompanies him. “Every evening", recounts Shiffer, "Arik phoned his aged mother in her village: How are you? How are the farm cows doing? -Good, good, she replied. And every evening she ended the conversation with the same sentence: Are you still among the Arabs, my son? Don’t believe a word they tell you…!"
This is the upbringing of Ariel Sharon. From that education, from that preparation for defying a hostile Arab environment, which has always left a mark to a varying extent on the near totality of Israeli Jewish society, and from that deep-seated conviction that Arab hostility is, in the end, irremediable because it is in their nature. From his complex, high-spirited, and deliberately paradoxical personality, one cannot grasp the structural elements or his internal conflicts without starting out from beginning: the childhood and adolescence of little Ariel Scheinerman, born into a family that in 1922 settled in Kfar Malal, a moshav --a semicollective farming village.
Vera Schneorov, a student, originally from Mohilev in the Ukraine, and Shmouel [Samuel], an agronomist from Brest-Litovsk in Byelorussia, arrived in Palestine (when it was placed under a British mandate in 1919) to escape a life they of which they wanted no part. For both of them, Zionism —the construction of an independent Jewish state in the land of Zion— was the only possible solution to the misfortune of being Jewish. They were not yet 30 years old but both had, since childhood, known the terror of the 1903-1906 pogroms of the Czarist Empire. They also knew what it was like to be Jewish in a hostile environment of widespread anti-Semitism, fear, and the shame generated by the feeling of congenital helplessness. If they left for Palestine, it was forever to remain hard-bitten.
The farming life in the Scheinerman family was Spartan. Tougher than in most other homes in the village: the father was authoritarian, even brutal, and literally anti-social due to the principle that brought him to Palestins —Jews must be self-reliant. Shmouel carved out a life for himself. Imbued with obsessive watchfulness involving everything touching his immediate circle, his home, his wife and his two children, Yehoudit and Ariel. He was disinterested in anything but a utilitarian relationships with others.
The Arabs of Palestine? A world which was in his eyes without culture, steeped in backwardness and filled with roguish and inscrutable liars whom he detested; they were progromists, the local equivalents of the muzhiks of his childhood who attacked the proliferating Jewish settlements. People whom he must defy, even beat into submission, because they only understand force.
“Don’t believe a word the Arabs tell you”....Arik grew up with that viewpoint. Shy, he did not play with other children. He had to go home the minute the schoolbell rang: his farm chores awaited him. As an adolescent, his propensity for keeping to himself grew. He was somewhat roly-poly and the youths of the village made fun of him. His desire to be left alone was reinforced. But at age 15, his life changed. He joined Haganah, the Labour Zionist militia of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine. Here he found his calling. A gun in his hand, he felt like he finally existed. This how he would assert himself and escape his isolation. At 17, he is a handsome young man, but haughty and more ferocious than ever. Trained by the British colonial forces, he becomes at 19 the leader of a Haganah hit squad specializing in ambushing Bedouin tribesmen. As a young junior officer, says his first biographer, Ouzi Benzimen, he is seen as "strange" by his peers.
Strange because he was different: reclusive yet always prepared for audacity. Benziman writes that he possesses an extraordinary capacity for adapting to conditions regardless of the terrain, especially in finding his way at night. He never fails to take the initiative, without necessarily informing his superiors. At the beginning of 1947, at the peak of the civil war between the Arabs and the Yishuv, “he earns a reputation for terrorizing the Arabs.” A military legend is about to be written and with it, the facets of a multiple personality.
On the one hand, he possesses physical courage at the limits of foolhardiness joined with audaciousness and a pronounced taste for solitary adventure. On the other hand, he is cold-blooded in every circumstance and has a propensity for carefully planning his moves in advance. The entire career of Ariel Sharon, from soldier to politician, will be built out of swift strikes and plans prepared years in advance, for which he awaits the right moment to carry them out.
Some of his actions have been crowned with success, such as his return to power or his isolation of Yassir Arafat. But others have been futile or ended in tremendous political fiascoes, like his invasion of Lebanon in 1982 or his idea, during the Second Intifida, of finding notables among the Palestinians who would accept to negotiate deals at a discount, outside the Palestinian Authority.
The man is an explosive mixture: adored by his followers, held in contempt by those whom he pushed out of the way and who see him as a maverick; at times a seething warrior thirsting for instant moments of brilliance while at others imperturbably calm; capable of implacable cruelty towards the enemy —and if necessary towards his followers as we saw with the Gaza evacuation— but also selflessly generous; long seen by countless Israelis as a “manipulator” and an inveterate “liar” but also outspoken and sometimes even befuddling.
He advances in disguise but in the end he masks nothing. But the contradiction is apparent. From his upbringing, he inherited a vision and certain rooted convictions; from his initial political anchorage —even if an ultra supporter of Ben Gurion—, he gained die-hard pragmatism. Despite appearances, Sharon was never an ideologue but an mastermind at maneuvering in the pursuit of a vision.
Never was this expressed more clearly than in a 2001 interview with Ari Shavit of Haaretz shortly after his arrival at the head of government. Baring his heart, he traced his place in space and time: The war for Israel's independence, he explained, is not over. 1948 was only the first chapter. I've spent all my life engaged in the struggle. (…) Combat is and remains the duty of my generation. And so it will be for generations to come because the road is long, it requires patience and determination, lots of determination.
He stated this again and again: Neither I nor my children nor my grandchildren will know peace. He believes that there is really no room within the little territory of Israel, the land of the Palestinian Mandate, for two constituent nations or a fortiori two nationalities. Any other idea is merely an enticement. Don’t believe a word the Arabs tell you, my son…!. Even —especially— when they start talking about peace, sleep with one eye open, because Israel will forever be unwanted in their environment.
The long-term relationship [with the Arabs], Sharon tells Shavit, plays in our favor, and from this derives territorial pragmatism. The trick, he says again, is to advance, always advance. All the plans which he will devise during his lifetime will be distinguished by a dual ambition: on the one hand, to exploit every opportunity to advance, to score points, to win, he says. One acre is still another acre under the Israeli control of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel). On the other hand, to cause Palestinian nationalism to fail —in his eyes the only real menace— but also to know how to adapt to changing circumstances, when to tack to stay on course, when to sidestep, and if necessary, when to pull back to bounce back later.
A definitive peace agreement, adds Sharon, appears to him to be an overly pretentious ambition. Underestimated, unrealistic and without necessity. For the road is immensely long and countless hurdles await —at the end, the most determined will impose his law. There is no room for two. In the meantime, who needs all-inclusive peace or definitive borders?
In the same Haaretz interview, he complains of the slackening moral determination of Israelis, distanced from their historic heroism; from the wars of 1948 and 1967 when a conquering spirit possessed them. Sometimes, after having repeated to satiety of striking at the Palestinian terrorists, he stops to admire the stubbornness of the Palestinians to hang onto their land. Starting in 2004, he begins to instill the idea of a pullout from Gaza. But we shall return to this later.
The rest of the interview, all of the remainer, is about personality. First and foremost, Sharon is a battler. In his clear-eyed maneuvering, as well as in his adventures, he gets a very early start. On May 24, 1948, ten days after the birth of the Jewish state during the war for independence during which he holds the rank of corporal in the elite Palmach force of the Labour Zionists, he attempted to take over an abandoned British constabulary. Trapped with eight of his men and wounded in the stomach and leg, he orders his men to cross the enemy’s lines two-by-two. He loses most of his blood but until the last moment he indicates the route to follow to one of his men, Yaakov Bogin, who carries him out.
A maverick? In 1952, Sharon wants to form his own unit: a commando brigade specialized in reprisal operations. The central sector commander, Moshe Dayan, opposes it saying that his paratroopers are sufficient. But Sharon badgers David Ben Gurion. He carries out a provocation. At night, Palestinian refugees enter no-man’s land to draw water from a well. We can’t let the terrorists approach our lines, he proclaims. Without orders, he organizes an ambush. Two Palestinian women are shot dead next to the well. The Jordanian Army responds by directing mortar fire at the surrounding Israeli villages.
This cannot go on!, stormed Sharon who, writes Benziman, cannot find words sufficiently harsh to denounce the defeatists in the government and on the general staff, who demonstrate excessive reluctance towards the Arabs. Ben Gurion agrees to his request. The famous Unit 101 is born and is placed under Sharon’s command. It earns its reputation thorough numerous acts of aggression and “reprisals” of which the most famous is Kibya: On 12 October 1953, sixty villagers are found dead in the ruins of their homes which had been boobytrapped by Commando Unit 101.
Later, in 1973, General Avraham Adan will never pardon Sharon for having short-circuited him by disobeying the orders of the general staff in order to claim the glory of being the first to cross the Suez Canal during the October War, surprising the Egyptians from the rear.
Brutal? The stories are endless. They mostly concern the enemy, Arab and Palestinian. But one of those stories reached the ears of Israeli reporters. Minister Ezer Weizmann, who had founded Likud along with Sharon, a former air force chief of staff and future president, had lost a son. A fighter pilot who was wounded by mortar fire during the Yom Kippur war, the young man had gone beserk. His driving license had been revoked because of recklessness, but his father petitioned the Transport Minister to reinstate it. Shortly afterwards, the son died behind the wheel. Weizmann was wracked with guilt. Crushed, he was at a cabinet meeting, almost drooping. To the point that Ariel Sharon could not take it any longer. In front of the entire cabinet, he turned around to Weizmann: How much longer is this going to go on? Are you a wimp or what? I’ve lost a son, too. So what? Life goes on. Real or apocryphal, the anecdote is genuine for what it says about the passionate devotion which Sharon inspires in so many Israelis: A man hardened to fate, unwavering in adversity. It also explains the revulsion and hate which his "animal brutality" provokes in others.
With an unquenchable thirst for life, Ariel Sharon lived his entire life at a short distance from the recurring danger of death. Not only as a soldier. He lost his son by his first wife when the child picked up his loaded firearm. The child’s mother, Margalit, was killed in a road accident. Sharon then married her sister, Lili, with whom he had two sons. Lili, the love of his life, died in 2000. In his ranch along the edges of the Negev, he built her a private masoleum on the ruins of Kafr Houdj, a Palestinian village razed after 1948....
Sharon, the champion of Eretz Israel and colonization, grows emotional with each olive tree planted in the "land of Israel", but he approved the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian olive groves and orchards during the Second Intifida then suddenly dismantled the Gaza settlements of which he personally was the sponsor between 1970 and 1980.
By all accounts, Sharon became concerned by the wear endured by Israeli society during the Intifida and the threats posed by the signature of the United States to the Road Map, providing for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. He had to find an exit and to bring about a spectacular coup to regain the upper hand. This turned out to be the Gaza evacuation. There was widespread stupefaction and sustained applause from the international community. Sharon was enthroned as a Man of Peace by George W. Bush. But it was forgotten that the foresighted Ariel Sharon never keeps just one plan in his desk but several, adapted to circumstances, subject to change by their very nature.
But once persuaded by his associates and certain generals of the irrationality of a political victory over the Palestinans, he decided to adapt by turning the situation to his advantage. He resuscitated a very old alternate plan —dating from 1978— in which the Palestinians would get back Gaza plus 40 to 50 percent of the West Bank. The idea was to manage as one could in a difficult situation while keeping the political initiative both vis-à-vis the Palestinian adversary and the international community and to be prepared to modify the plan later: either by making more advances or by agreeing to new territorial concessions, should changing circumstances warrant. There again, the idea was to go it alone and to rely his own initiative and above all, to go as far as he could in imposing his own solution.
Sharon, who carefully planned his rise to power in such a way that no one could challenge him, has he changed over time? Yes and no. His basic notions have not budged one iota. But an essential political transformation has occurred motivated by an event in the past. To be precise, it was in 1982 when, as Minister of Defense, following the massacres carried out by the Christian militias allied with Israel in the Palestian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila near Beirut, he saw tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen march in Tel Aviv shouting Sharon, murderer! President Ronald Reagan abandoned his support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. From the Lebanese debacle, said Sharon’s old accomplice Réouven Rivlin, the general learned two big lessons: When engaged in war, Israel must always maintain national unity and avoid severing ties with the United States.
Ariel Sharon was long a brilliant but undisciplined military man and a political adventurer. Elected to the Knesset after the 1973 October War, he bashed Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, those “cowardly politicians” who stopped him from delivering the fatal blow to Egypt by accepting US demands to abandon the encirclement of the Egypian 3rd Army, which Sharon had pinned down on the other side of the Suez Canal. Dayan let it be known that Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, had threatened to end the US airlift supplying Israel with arms and ammunition if the encirclement was not lifted. Of course, replied Sharon, Kissinger threatened but he would not have made good on his threat. Dayan’s retort was, When Washington communicates this sort of thing, I never try to call their bluff.
Sharon was prepared to play this kind of poker game forever. No matter what the circumstance, Sharon believed that he could force destiny. He was “the man who doesn’t stop at the red light”, as Ouzi Benziman titled in his biography. However, following the Lebanon fiasco, he settled down politically and began include reality in his calculations. One he became head of government, Sharon ably convinced the US State Department to see green when the light was red. But he never yanked their chain more than necessary. He always attempted to anchor himself in the evolving sentiment of his own people.
Truth be told, it was Israeli public opinion which, during the initial phase of the Intifada, handed Sharon his reputation: that of an iron fist towards the Palestinians. But despite the helping hand from the Israeli people, it is Sharon who, –because Israel is at war–, listens to and always remains in step with changing public opinion. If he hadn’t acquired the certainty that Israelis wanted “separation” from the Palestinians more than “victory” over them, Sharon would have never gone against their convictions by ordering the evacuation of Gaza. Moreover, the conditions of the evacuation allowed him to plant in public opinion a concept which has always informed and nourished his vision: unilateralism in dealing with the Palestinians.
By an overwhelming majority, Israelis have longed to “divorce” themselves from the Palestinians — to separate from them and to forget about them. But Sharon was convinced that it would be necessary to see and hear from them for the long haul. But ending it all by divorce? —And how would this accomplished without partially giving up such densely populated territory?— By setting his own conditions while preserving his interests as best he could, without negotiation and without an arbitor. Always rely on yourself…
The unilateral evacuation was the last act in “Arik, the King of Israel”, as his supporters describe it. Unilateralism is a double-edged sword. It preserves the essential of the Israeli occupation: the uninterrupted construction of the security wall and the the accelerated cantonization of the West Bank. And what is more, it habituates the international community to constant delays in the establishiment of a “viable Palestinian state". But it also traces a new path: the idea that the withdrawal from future territory is ineluctable because it is viewed as a necessity by the Israelis themselves, as was Gaza.
Once having evacuated Gaza, Sharon split up Likud. He first called his new party “National Responsibility”. Three days later he changed the name. The party, his party, because it rested entirely on his personal stature, would be called Kadima (Forward): Advance, always advance...
Would Sharon have ordered a general retreat from the territories conquered in 1967? That was certainly not his plan. But had circumstances, from which he had above all sought to extricate himself, imposed such a necessity, then he would certainly have carried it out. Just as he evacuated Sinai in 1978 after having vigorouly opposed it. Just as he pulled out out of Gaza in 2005 after having sworn to Ari Shavit in 2001 that he would “never” abandon a single colony --even the most remote. There is still a long and winding road in the enterprise of conquest.