One day in June 1974, a novice Israeli politician named Ariel Sharon drove into the northern West Bank. In a field of thistles south of the Palestinian city of Nablus, the short, bulky ex-general joined a hundred young activists from a radical right-wing protest movement who were busily setting up a new settlement. The activists' aim was to ensure that Israel retained permanent rule of the entire West Bank, in defiance of the policy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who'd taken office just two days before. Sharon, known for his obsession with maps and topography, had personally chosen the spot for their illegal settlement bid, near the Palestinian village of Hawarah.
That night, Israeli troops received orders to remove the settlers. As the soldiers dragged protesters to waiting buses, an enraged Sharon stormed through the melee, roaring, "Refuse orders! Refuse orders! . . . This is an immoral order, and you have to disobey that kind of order."
The incident says much about Sharon. It underlines the early and deep tie between him and the Orthodox activists of the radical settler movement. Within the secular Israeli ruling class of politicians and ex-brass, he was their first and most dedicated ally. More than that, their strategy of using direct action to impose their political stance on the country was a perfect fit for Sharon's personality at its most basic. Here, just months after taking off his general's uniform and becoming a lawmaker, he had no qualms about urging soldiers to ignore the law and orders. As a soldier and political leader, Sharon embodied the primacy of force over scruples, consensus, diplomacy, or any other limitation.
The Hebrew original of Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom's biography of Sharon, published in 2005, made brief mention of the Hawarah affair. Even those sentences have been trimmed from the English, which matters little, since the Hebrew text missed the critical details, including Sharon's call for insubordination, and made no attempt to analyze his behavior. And much needed to be trimmed from a tome that was as obese as Sharon himself—an interminable compendium, based largely on recycled press reports, which bore the hagiographic title Haro'eh (The Shepherd). The English edition, at nearly five hundred pages, nonetheless remains oversize and superficial, lacking a storyteller's art as well as a critical perspective on Sharon and Israeli history.
Yet the book does have value in places, sometimes by being read against itself. Twice, for instance, Hefez and Bloom recount an incident from Sharon's youth in the farming village of Kfar Malal, northeast of Tel Aviv. Sharon's parents, politically right-wing and bitterly individualistic, were outcasts in the village, run as a cooperative in the spirit of the Zionist left. They saw themselves as "surrounded by enemies." In the early 1930s, a general meeting of village members decided to cede some of their land to a neighboring Jewish village, and a fence was put up on the new boundary. Sharon's mother, Vera, was unwilling to give up any of her family's land. One night, carrying a rifle and a pair of pliers, she went to the fields, repeatedly cut the new fence, and foiled the plan.
For Sharon, his biographers write, "his mother's militant action symbolized an uncompromising stand, a battle for borders, and a sense of enterprise and initiative. . . . Sharon would replicate his mother's behavior time and again." The lesson was no doubt formative, but what it appears to have actually taught him was that democratic decisions constitute a form of persecution by a hostile world and so "in principle" could and should be cast aside at the first opportunity a daring person could find.
Sharon's father gave him a dagger for his fifth birthday, a violin for the sixth. He did not master the violin. With the dagger, he guarded his father's orchard at night even as a child. An utterly mediocre student, he began to stand out only when he joined the paramilitary "youth battalion" of the Haganah, the underground Jewish militia in British-ruled Palestine. By age fourteen, he was inducted into the Haganah itself. He quickly showed his dedication to training, his ability at map reading and finding his way through the countryside at night, and his knack for taking command—and defying orders.
After Israeli independence, Sharon became an officer in the new country's army and soon was a figure of legend and bitter controversy. In the early 1950s, he headed a commando unit and then the paratroops in a campaign of reprisals for Palestinian cross-border attacks. In one mission in 1953, his force struck the West Bank village of Qibya, blowing up houses and killing about sixty civilians. Sharon claimed his men hadn't seen the residents hiding in their houses. Israeli historian Benny Morris, in his book Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1999, describes evidence that undermines that alibi.
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met the young officer and quickly became his patron—despite Qibya, later unauthorized raids, and what Ben-Gurion himself called Sharon's "habit of speaking untruth." Sharon's career was slowed by his behavior during the 1956 war with Egypt, when he defied orders and sent a battalion of paratroops into an unnecessary, costly battle. Yet he stayed in the army and eventually won new promotions.
Ben-Gurion was among the Diaspora-born Israeli leaders who were often awed by Jewish fighters. An exception among those leaders was Levi Eshkol, prime minister through most of the 1960s. In the Mideast crisis of 1967, Eshkol initially resisted his generals' urgings to go to war. According to a recent study by Israeli military historian Ami Gloska, Sharon suggested to then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin that the military seize power.
Idolized by some, deeply distrusted by others, Sharon made it nearly to the top of the army. By the early '70s, he was out of uniform and in politics. His military record is not enough to explain the following he attracted. Israeli politics is full of heroic former generals. Like Sharon, they are stunningly stiff before a crowd. Like him, they often reduce issues of policy and national purpose to tactical military discussions—even if Sharon was extreme in that respect. Hefez and Bloom do not solve the mystery of his appeal, but in repeating his life story, they provide clues.
Sharon was one of those leaders whose personal struggles resonated powerfully and subliminally with a wide public. It was the crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, who could tell a crippled America there was nothing to fear. Like Menachem Begin, the founder of the Israeli right, Sharon saw himself as unjustly ostracized and excluded from power. Both men's tone of perpetual defiance made them heroes to those Israelis, especially Jews from Middle Eastern countries, who felt the country's elite had excluded them and denied them respect.
Even more than that, Sharon believed that Israel could take exclusive control of its fate, imposing its will on eternally implacable enemies. It was a stance of the soul, something deeper than ideology. His military tactics, his efforts as a cabinet minister from 1977 onward to spread settlements across the occupied territories, his horrendously failed attempt to remake Lebanon in 1982, all flowed from that conviction. His belief in force touched something in the Israeli psyche: the desire to place Jewish weakness firmly in the past, to end the days when Jews were the victims of other people's often cruel decisions. He was the avatar of self-determination.
This admiration of force is not exclusively Israeli. It is pedestrian among the oppressed. It accounts for the veneration of violence, of "armed struggle," among third-world liberation movements and among the Palestinians in particular.
Sharon's career testifies to the appeal of force but also to Israeli attempts to rein it in. Sharon was pushed out of the army without achieving his goal of becoming military chief of staff. After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a state commission of inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinian refugees and forced him to step down as defense minister.
He finally became prime minister in 2001 because of a political train wreck: a combination of an ill-considered change in the Israeli electoral system, previous prime minister Ehud Barak's abysmal failures, and the Palestinian return to "armed struggle" against Israelis on buses and in restaurants. A record number of Israelis, forced to choose between Barak and Sharon, simply did not vote.
As prime minister, he will be remembered best for his decision to pull out of Gaza, dismantling the settlements there that he had long championed. The change in direction was significant. Yet it was less of a reversal than popularly perceived. Sharon did not turn into a peacenik.
Sharon's support for settlement in the occupied territories was always based on "battalion-level calculations regarding the value of territory," in the words of Yossi Alpher, a leading Israeli strategic analyst. To maintain overall military control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon believed that Israel must "control every strategic hilltop, and fragment the Palestinian population," argues Alpher.
In the patches of land left between the settlements, Sharon proposed giving the Palestinians limited self-rule. The goal was to keep control of the West Bank while avoiding annexing the Palestinian population. As prime minister, he changed the label for those fragmented enclaves, essentially Bantustans, to "Palestinian state."
The decision to pull out of Gaza was another incremental shift—acknowledgment that somewhat more land must be left in Palestinian hands. The move was intended to calm domestic fears that the occupation could turn Israel into a binational state. It was also aimed at reducing pressure from Washington to negotiate with the Palestinians. Instead of talking, dickering, compromising, Sharon would impose borders and demonstrate strength by dismantling settlements. The name he gave the pullback, disengagement, told the story: One "disengages" from an enemy in battle, pulling back tactically to a more secure position.
Hefez and Bloom's account reads largely as a long review of previous coverage
of Sharon's life, for those who may have missed an incident or failed to keep track. The archives they list as sources are mainly those of Israeli newspapers. Yet the book's value as summary is reduced by sloppiness with facts and dates. It describes Sharon's parents as sailing to Palestine from "the Black Sea port of Baku" (Baku is on the Caspian Sea). It incorrectly states that the left-wing Ratz (Citizens' Rights Movement) party was a partner in Golda Meir's last government. It makes Sharon author of the idea to settle Israelis in northeastern Sinai, a plan advocated before him by Labor Party politicians Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. For a serious biography of Sharon, drawing on original historical documents, delving deeply into the man's personality and his role in Israeli history, precise in details, we must still wait.
That work will close with a final irony, stark and poetic, as if designed to make mortals shake: The man whose entire life was devoted to force of will spent his last months in bed, felled by a stroke that left him comatose, without will, a shell. As he lay dying, raids by Palestinian militants and the Shiite Hezbollah organization spurred Israel to reinvade both Gaza and Lebanon, as if to prove that unilateral withdrawals, sans diplomacy, cannot bring calm. The story must be written as tragedy—one man's, and a nation's.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977 (Times Books, 2006).