Newspaper article International New York Times

Brutality, Twists and Paradoxes in the Life of Ariel Sharon

Newspaper article International New York Times

Brutality, Twists and Paradoxes in the Life of Ariel Sharon

Article excerpt

In his biography of Ariel Sharon, the journalist David Landau examines the life of one of the country's most controversial leaders.

Arik. The Life of Ariel Sharon. By David Landau.Illustrated. 635 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

When Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel in a landslide 13 years ago, many close to David Landau, a left-leaning British-born Israeli journalist, thought seriously of leaving the country. The future under Sharon, it seemed to them, held only war and bloodshed. Yet when Prime Minister Sharon collapsed from a stroke less than five years later, "We wept," Mr. Landau writes. "Not just for him; for ourselves."

It is Sharon's wholly surprising journey from ruthless military commander to what Mr. Landau calls "national father figure," from territory-expanding champion to Palestinian state advocate, that most interests Mr. Landau in "Arik: The Life of Ariel Sharon," his fine, comprehensive and readable biography. Five years in the making and published just after Sharon's death last month, the book closely chronicles Sharon's epic military and political battles, serving as a kind of national history.

It also seeks to grapple with "what ifs." If Sharon had not visited the Temple Mount in 2000, would the second Palestinian uprising have occurred anyway? (Very likely, he suggests.) If Sharon had not suffered a stroke just as he was withdrawing Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and a part of the West Bank, would the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be in a different place from where it is today, paralyzed by timidity and mistrust on both sides? Mr. Landau believes Sharon planned to carry out more withdrawals and seems to accept the notion that only a onetime rightist like Sharon could have done so successfully. He quotes one of Sharon's closest aides as saying the stroke was like "watching a film in which there was a power outage halfway through."

Mr. Landau, the Israel correspondent for The Economist, who wrote for many years for The Jerusalem Post, was editor of the newspaper Haaretz and the author of a book on the ultra-Orthodox at the time of Sharon's stroke. He does not shy away from the unheroic. Much of his account will be familiar from the obituaries last month -- Sharon's attack in 1953 on the Jordanian village of Qibya in which scores of women and children were killed; his bulldozing of Gaza refugee camps in the early 1970s; his sending of Lebanese Phalange troops into Palestinian camps in Beirut in 1982, leading to a massacre of at least 800 civilians.

There are also transgressions that have gone unreported. One, brought to light in this book, occurred in early 1972, when Sharon was the military commander in the Israeli south. He expelled Bedouin tribes from parts of Sinai he wanted reserved for military use, sending elderly tribesmen without warning trudging for up to 30 miles through freezing sands. "Many just slumped down and wept," and more than 40 died, an Israeli expert on the Bedouin, Clinton Bailey, wrote at the time in a complaint to the military chief of staff. The chief of staff, Gen. David Elazar, ordered Sharon to allow the Bedouin back. A few days later Sharon, who was never disciplined for what happened, called Mr. Bailey in and, all good cheer, said he too loved the colorful Bedouin. If Mr. Bailey ever needed research help he should not hesitate to ask. Sharon then quietly sent out orders barring Mr. Bailey from all Israeli military bases in Sinai.

To Mr. Landau, this episode typified a pattern to Sharon's early exploits: He carried out government policy but "with excessive, wanton brutality." He was "the convenient lightning rod to absorb and deflect criticism." And his superiors "covered for him and protected him from serious fallout."

Mr. Landau gives other examples. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, admired Sharon for his guts and leadership skills and saved his career despite viewing him as a liar ("Have you weaned yourself of your off-putting proclivity for not telling the truth? …

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