Biography of Ariel Sharon shows that the general known for his brutal treatment of Palestinians was always just following orders

I have another book review in Jewish Currents, this one about David Landau’s extensive biography of Ariel Sharon, known for both his brutal prosecution of war against the Palestinians and his unilateral decision in 2005 to dismantle Israeli settlements and withdraw from occupied territory. For the complete review and some other very interesting articles in Jewish Currents, visit the website.

Here are some excerpts from my article:

Napoleon once said that he needed ten thousand new soldiers a month to wage his wars. What he meant was that he knew that ten thousand of his own troops would die every month. He was stating what every war-time general understands: You can’t fight a war without causing a lot of death and destruction to both losers and winners. Throughout history, virtually all war-time generals have been willing to shed a lot of blood, both the eminently successful ones like Scipio Africanus, Ulysses S. Grant, and Georgy Zhukov, and the failures like Robert E. Lee and Luigi Cadorna.

To call Ariel Sharon a bloodthirsty butcher, then, merely states the obvious. Of course he was: he commanded in war time. In Arik, his new biography of Ariel Sharon, David Landau demonstrates a painful awareness that a savage inhumanity comes with the job description for military leaders like “Arik, King of the Jews” as many Israelis proclaimed Sharon after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. But Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, also strives to make clear that for many of the years before he became prime minister Sharon was not a decision-maker in the inner sanctum, but only an instrument who followed orders as effectively and ruthlessly as possible. Whenever Sharon wrought too much death and destruction, his hands were slapped, but he was protected and always held in reserve for the next dirty job.

For example, David Ben-Gurion and his cadre of young advisors expected and then fretted little about the many civilian deaths incurred when Sharon’s troops raided Jordanian villages in the early 1950s. In the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it was again someone else’s vision and policy — Menachem Begin’s — that Sharon pursued with a brutal disregard for civilian life.

Make no mistake about it, Sharon always advocated a take-no-prisoners approach to war. He sought to inflict the maximum pain possible on the enemy, was not squeamish about sacrificing soldiers to attain a goal, and thought little of protecting civilians. Take his use of bulldozers and grenades to drive out terrorists in Gaza in the early ’70s. Landau reports he cleaned out an entire Bedouin community in one day.

It was, however, Sharon’s ruthlessness and persistence that won the 1973 war when his troops took the beachhead at which the Israeli military could cross over from the Sinai onto the mainland of Egypt. He did it with cunning and aggressiveness; as Landau describes his approach, “Surprise the enemy, throw him off balance, come at him from an unexpected angle, attack, attack, attack.”

Sharon always got the dirty jobs: As Minister of Defense, he cleared the Sinai of settlers to comply with the peace treaty with Egypt. He later said this was a mistake, but Landau believes it served as Sharon’s model for the more significant forced evacuations of Jewish settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005.

Another dirty job: Sharon held various cabinet posts for twenty years, but whatever the job title, he was always in charge of settlements.

Through Landau’s book, five recurring themes emerge:

1. As a general, Sharon always went further than ordered. In Lebanon, for example, he went into West Beirut without the knowledge or explicit permission of the cabinet. Landau acknowledges, however, that Sharon’s overreaching was usually implicit in the actual orders given him, so that Israeli leaders knew or could surmise that he might march further, take more prisoners or let his soldiers behave more brutally than commanded in the official orders.

2. Sharon was prone to lie about what he had done and why. For example, as the new head of infantry training, he lied about why he missed a regularly scheduled meeting, and it was only through the intervention of Ben Gurion that he was allowed to stay in the army.

3. Sharon was usually a disruptive force, screaming and insulting others. When he disagreed with policy, he usually went public with his dissent.

4. As portrayed by Landau, Sharon was always ambitious for a higher rank and more power, never willing to “wait his turn,” and often used threats and lies to climb the ladder.

5. A succession of governments followed the pattern of punishing Sharon for overstepping his authority or creating too much bloodshed, then bringing him back for the next dirty job.

Landau quotes Shimon Peres’ belief that it was Sharon who broke the 1984 Labor-Likud deadlock by negotiating the terms by which the two parties could form a government. In return, Sharon was named Minister of Industry and Trade. During the time that Labor controlled this “unity” government, he created the 6-4 edge by always voting with Labor.

Sharon’s gradual rehabilitation and transformation is the overarching storyline in Arik. After his resignation as defense minister in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, he gradually grew from hothead to wise man. His public persona as prime minister was of a kind and comforting grandfather, revered and loved with “an aura of mature unflappability and gravitas,” as Landau puts it. Sharon himself encapsulated his approach in his slogan, “Restraint is strength.”

Landau lends drama and a sense of inevitability to the false turns and disappointments that led to Sharon’s 2005 decision to unilaterally withdraw and dismantle settlements, the stated goal of which was to set the stage for a two-state solution. According to Landau, Sharon showed signs of understanding the necessity of a two-state solution to preserve a democratic Jewish state years before he became prime minister by being the only general in 1970 who voted to support the Palestinians in their efforts to overturn King Hussein.

Because his focus is on Sharon’s role in events, Landau occasionally assumes that readers know the basic facts and sometimes leaves out important detail.

Landau also fails to explore the militarization of Israeli society and politics. Modern Israel is a nation in which military men have always held a goodly share of the cabinet posts and mostly guided policy. He does present the post-1967 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as less capable and heroic than we in the United States generally think of them. They blundered often after 1967, for example in the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War and in their early reaction to the second intifada, in which they apparently ignored the lessons of the first.

But Landau eschews any discussion of how militarization has affected larger society and the economy. For example, he notes that Sharon appointed Netanyahu as minister of finance and gave him the job of improving the economy by cutting government benefits, but while Landau discloses that one goal of the cuts was to compel the ultra-religious and Arab women to get jobs, he never recognizes that the heavy military burden was one of the major causes of the sluggish economy.

We are so used to depicting the Jewish culture as peaceful, and imagining Jews as victims, that we forget that a strain of militarism runs through Jewish history. Three times in its ancient and/or mythical history, Jewish generals have waged wars of conquest: the original conquest of Canaan; the war by David using the troops of Israel’s enemies to dethrone King Saul; and the civil war in which the ultra-religious under the Maccabees wrested control of ancient Israel. (One could build a case that the revolt against British authority after World War II marked a fourth such war of conquest.)  Many Jews look to Jewish religious documents to justify these wars, and the justification has always reduced to the same idea: God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. Archeology has demonstrated, however, that the justifications were mostly written after the wars ended. After all, the histories of wars are usually written by the winners.

Being in a constant state of siege transforms even the most inherently humanistic of societies, and modern Israel has faced constant warfare since its inception as a democratic homeland for the Jews. Defenders of the state have always made a moral distinction between Israelis and the enemy, taking the high ground by virtue of religious texts, Israel’s existence as a democracy, and an almost smug belief in the moral essence of Jewish society and leadership. Uncritical defenders trust that this moral essence prevents Israel from waging anything other than a “just war.”

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) proclaimed this moral high ground with its ”Purity of Arms” principle, one of the ten values of IDF’s basic doctrine: “The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.” But even a cursory readings of Arik will unearth enough incidents of civilian casualties, “collateral damage,” and outright brutality to put the lie to the “Purity of Arms” concept. Just as the principle of American exceptionalism has been used to justify the moral right of the U.S. to wage wars of aggression, so has the Israeli government and society bolstered its continued preference for violence over negotiation with a Jewish version of exceptionalism. It’s easy for a nation at war for more than seventy years, with a near-universal military draft and career soldiers dominating government, to delude itself about its conduct during wars, but the acts speak for themselves.

Sharon’s career before assuming the office of prime minister reminds me of the character of Li Kui in the classic Chinese war novel, The Water Margin. Li Kui, or the Black Whirlwind, is the most violent and vicious of the hundred and eight heroes who band together to defeat the imperial Chinese army, which has fallen into corrupt hands. Impetuous, bloodthirsty and untrustworthy, Li Kui is always kept out of the inner circle of decision-making, but when the band needs a particularly bloody or untidy piece of work accomplished, they turn to him. His violent and bombastically antisocial ways are often set in contrast to the group’s charismatic leader, the venerable and intellectual Song Jiang, who has a global view of the struggle for justice. The novel presents Li Kui as a kind of alter ego to Song Jiang, the flip side of the same coin.

Perhaps the saddest recent development in Israel is that a stroke prevented Ariel Sharon from fully shedding the persona of a Jewish Li Kui and becoming the wise and far-seeing Song Jiang — a figure so tragically missing in contemporary Israel.

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One comment on “Biography of Ariel Sharon shows that the general known for his brutal treatment of Palestinians was always just following orders
  1. Larry Spivack says:

    Calling him a \\\”bloodthirsty butcher\\\” does not state the obvious;it\\\’s is name calling at the lowest level.Do you expect a \\\”kind\\\” war in the middle east?
    Of course there will be violence in war and extreme violence in any war that Israel finds itself in.Don\\\’t blame the winner for the loser\\\’s travails that they set themselves set up.
    In local wars,not with organized troops facing off, but civilians/fighters facing you,there will be civilian/fighters casualties. If you want to second guess the outcome of any battle,conflict,dispute in Israel,I shed no tears for those who wish to destroy Israel.

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