ARIK: The Life of Ariel Sharon by David Landau. Alfred A. Knopf. 635 pages. $35.
This comprehensive biography expertly traces the long and controversial life of Ariel Sharon, the military and political leader of Israel who served in various capacities during a formative and complex span of his country's tumultuous history. Even though accurately reported, this account does have a point of view and the subject does not escape close scrutiny. Author David Landau was the former editor in chief of Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper noted for its left-leaning liberal stance on domestic and foreign issues.
Sharon's grandparents were Russian Zionist emigres to a Jewish settlement in British-controlled Palestine in 1910, later returning to Russia.
Sharon's parents emigrated in 1922 and he was born in the farming cooperative of Kfar Malal in 1928. He was called "Arik," a variant of his given name. As the author explains, Sharon's father was a Hebrew teacher, whose influence gave him a lifelong reverence for the spoken and literary language. Later, Sharon as prime minister, said in a speech before the Knesset, "There are two things without which the Jews will not be a nation: their land and their language."
His family was regarded as being "independent" in a highly regimented farming cooperative culture. In his youth, Sharon managed the requirements of school and the rigors of farm tasks, both difficult work schedules, which became part of his ingrained behavior. In 1942 at the age of 14, he became a member of the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish state-to-be, which had been formed to defend the settlements from Palestinian incursions. He soon became immersed in the civil strife between the conflicting entities of the Palmach, Etzel and Irgun as well as with the British forces that were enforcing a blockade of further Jewish immigration.
Landau explains that all the interim training stood him in good stead in the 1948 War of Independence, in which he served as a commander in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), and his reputation as an innovative and fearless maverick began to take hold.
He chronicles Sharon's leadership in 1953 when, at the behest of David Ben Gurion, an elite military group called Unit 101 was created. The unit's specific purpose was conducting retaliatory strikes against Palestinian terrorists. It was disbanded because of extensive collateral damage to civilians and merged into the paratroop brigade of the IDF, commanded by Sharon during the 1956 Suez conflict. He assumed leadership positions in the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1969 War of Attrition and the 1971 Gaza offensive.
In 1973, Sharon (by then among the founders of the Likud political party) returned to the IDF as a reservist to command an armored division at the advent of the 19-day Yom Kippur War. True to form, he had his own notions about the conduct of battles and was inclined to ignore orders from headquarters.
Landau covers Sharon's battle actions and decisions in a coherent narrative that explains the soldier's rationale for doing it his own way, driven not infrequently for reasons of publicity.
Sharon retired from the military but found that there were other wars to be fought. Perhaps Landau's best treatment of Sharon is the chronicling of his adept and ham-fisted maneuvering in the astonishingly complex battlefield of Israeli politics, which many observers have described as "dysfunctional." He entered the fray as an unabashedly conservative pro-settlement politician in Menachem Begin's administration, and was put in charge of creating Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza strip. Sharon succeeded in developing more than 200 settlements
In 1981, Begin appointed him minister of defense, and the very next year Sharon initiated a still controversial incursion into Lebanon to expel Yassir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, which had become established in Beirut. The invasion was hotly contested with many Israeli casualties, Landau notes. Both the necessity of the invasion as well as the conduct of the conflict under Sharon are still as hotly contested as Bush's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Any successes of the invasion soon were obscured by recriminations about the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian militia under Sharon's control. An Israeli government investigation found him negligent, assigning him responsibility for the debacle and he was removed from his post.
Landau recounts how Sharon, in a remarkable political feat, managed to shrug off this potentially game-changing scandal and go on to serve in the government as minister of trade (1984-1990) and later as minister of housing and construction from 1990 to 1992, all the while dodging political bullets amid accusations of corruption. In 1999, he became chairman of the Likud Party, which he helped establish almost 30 years earlier, and in 2001, he was elected Israel's 11th prime minister.
Commentary on Sharon's accumulated good or ill will was well established by the time Landau took over as editor in chief of Haaretz in 2004. Landau was front and center when Sharon's unilateral "Disengagement Policy" began to be implemented and the initial phases of the U.S. backed "Roadmap" for peace was being negotiated.
Such seemingly liberal policies represented an abrupt about-face from the hard-line approach, which formed Sharon's political identity. Sudden changes in an already volatile political environment already had created the conditions that led to the 1995 assassination of his predecessor, Labor Party leader Yitzak Rabin. Sharon's policies were greeted variously with deep suspicion or wild enthusiasm.
Landau reveals that Sharon had divided support from within his own party for his Disingagement Policy. In a burst of confidence, he called for a vote, promising to abide by the outcome. The vote did not go his way, a decision he completely disregarded. He continued IDF withdrawals from Gaza and forcibly removing the settlers. In the middle of all of this, Sharon suffered a stroke, and remained in a coma for eight years, dying in January 2014.
Ehud Olmert succeeded him as prime minister and tried to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership, but the efforts bore little fruit. Sharon's disengagement plan was slowly dismantled by the hardliners under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
With a reporter's perspective and a storyteller's eye for detail, Landau has written a thoroughly engaging account of the life of a leader who transformed Israel.
Reviewer Ben McC. Moise is an author and freelance writer who lives in Charleston.